Storing and Drinking Vintage Port
To make the best out of a bottle of Vintage Port one must be very careful in handling the bottle. This complies both with the storing of the bottle, knowing when to drink it and how to decant it properly.
There are no absolute rules of how to store a Vintage Port perfectly, but there are some factors one must consider. The most perfect place to store the bottle is of course in a wine cellar. Dark, cold and humid that is. But as collector's in the 1940s often said, according to J:C: Valente-Perfeito in his book Let's Talk About Port, "A wine cellar too hot or too cold murders the wine before it is old." The optimum temperature is 12 to 16 degrees Celsius (55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures higher than this can be tolerated for shorter periods. More important than the temperature is the variation in temperature. Large fluctuations can dry out the cork and damage the wine.
To prevent the cork from drying out the humidity should be around 50 percent in the cellar. Placing a container of water in the cellar might just do the trick for those of you living in a dry place.
Since most homes today don't have any cellar, these conditions can be very hard to live up to. For those of you that don't have any other options a closet might do fine. This causes the wines to mature faster than they would do in a perfect cellar. This is something to consideration when planning to drink the wines. A Vintage Port normally would take 15 to 25 years to mature but if stored in warmer conditions it would get a sort of turbo maturing, making the Vintages perfect after maybe 10 to 20 years instead.
No matter where you decide to store your bottles, always remind that they must be stored on their sides. This is to prevent the cork from drying out but also to let the sedimentation in the bottle settle in one side of the bottle so that it is not whirled around when you open the bottle and decant it. Sometimes bottles will have a white paint mark on the bottle. This is to identify which way should be up – the white mark should always be facing upwards. This allows the crust on the wine to develop uniformly in one place and this is also another reason why the bottle should not be removed. For very old bottles of Vintage Port (more than 50 years), the cork should be inspected for seepage once a year.
One of the most difficult decisions with Vintage Port is when to drink it. Some people like the taste of a young Vintage when others want theirs mature and rounded off by a couple of decades. We prefer a well matured Vintage with perhaps 20 years in the bottle more than a Vintage only 4 or 6 years old. This is something for everyone to decide for themself. There is no wrong or right about this but of course there also comes a time for a wine when it becomes too old so don't wait too long if you are uncertain. A rule of thumb can however be to drink a Vintage port at about 15 to 25 years old. Some keeps longer some matures faster.
Raising the bottle
Before opening a Vintage Port, the bottle should be raised. This should be done a couple of days before decanting and drinking so that the sediments reach the bottom of the bottle. If you have stored the Vintage on its side (of course you have, since we told you to do so above) don't twirl around the bottle, instead try to remember which side it was lying on so that you can keep that side down when decanting (remember the white mark if there is any). In this way you will get all the sediments in the bottom, downside of the bottle minimizing the sediments in your decanted wine.
Pulling the cork
To draw the cork on a bottle of Vintage Port can sometimes be challenging, especially on old bottles where the cork has been affected by the many years of storage. In most cases it is possible to use a regular cork-screw to pull the cork, but there are also more sophisticated ways, for instance there are specially designed port wine tongs. The metallic tong is heated until it becomes white, then it is applied to the bottle neck, just below the cork. After about 30 seconds the tong is removed and a cold wet towel is wrapped around the bottle neck and then the glass cracks. The sudden heat change will lead to a tension in the glass leaving a very clean edge without shards of glass. This requires some practice but once mastered it is a very elegant way of opening old bottles of Vintage Port.
Another useful tool is a twin prong cork puller, also called the Butler's Friend or Ah-So. It is constructed with two thin metal strips or blades. The two strips are placed between the side of the cork and the bottle, one on each side of the cork. Gently wiggle and push down. Then pull and twist in the same movement. Surprisingly to many the cork will follow and even if the cork is in bad condition the cork will be removed in one piece.
Pouring into the Decanter
Decanting the wine can be a bit tricky the first time you do it. There are special Port filters available to stop the sediments from following the port to the decanter but there are other ways of doing this. A towel or a regular coffee filter will do. Keep a candle or a flashlight under the bottle when you decant it. By doing so you can see when the thick porridge like sediment reaches the bottle-neck and it is time to stop pouring. If you don't have a decanter, an old bottle will do just fine. The important thing is to get a clear Vintage Port without much of the sediments. Normally, about five centiliters of sediments are left in the bottle. Sometimes more - sometimes less. The amount does not have anything at all to do with the quality of the wine.
The port should be at the correct temperature prior to decanting. Older port should be decanted just prior to serving and a constant temperature after leaving the cellar is preferable.
To appreciate the port at its best, a glass that can be swirled is the best glass. A tulip shaped glass allows this.
Passing the Port
There is a lot of tradition about how the port should be passed. The tradition is to pass the port to the left, clockwise, without ever resting the decanter on the table. Of course, if the port is not passed and the decanter is resting on the table you are allowed to ask ‘if you know the Archbishop of Canterbury who was the last person you know who did not passed the port’.
Keeping an opened bottle
When the bottle has been opened, its conservation will depend on the Port Wine category and of course its place of storage. The suggested periods are only for guidance purposes: