Vintage Port - Fact and Fiction December 03, 2015 20:34

So you have an interest in Vintage Port but are not sure whether all you hear is true? Well that’s understandable as all is not as it seems when it comes to evaluating a bottle of Vintage Port. From understanding the provenance and possible lack of a label to advice on bone fide Port Shippers and decanting, when it comes to Port there’s more than meets the wine lover’s eye.  In this article MWH Wine Merchants provides you with some interesting Port facts, uncovers the myths and gives you some sound advice about that most fabulous of fine wines, Vintage Port. 

Vintage Port bottlings and Port labels

Taylors 1955 Vintage PortOwing to this variation in Port bottlings, there’s often an array of Port labels on bottles of pre 1970 Vintage Port.  Some wine merchants didn't even bother to put a label on the Port bottles at all and instead just had a branded capsule, whilst others who did use labels used weak glues and low quality paper that would see the labels lost along the way.
It has only been a requirement to bottle Vintage Port in Portugal since the 1970 vintage.  Before that many British wine merchants and breweries imported Vintage Port into the UK in barrels known as ‘pipes’ from which you could bottle around 60 cases (720 bottles).  There is no need to be put off by this though as Vintage Port is often described as indestructible. This is because the grape spirit in a bottle of Port is (about 20% of the total contents) acts as a kind of preservative. My own experience is that decently made Port can last at least 75 years and some even longer.  

Advantages of British bottled Vintage Port

Port that has been matured in a decent British cellar is often better than Port that has been stored in Oporto. My experience of this is borne out by a trip I made to Oporto in 1986. I was very kindly served a 1963 Taylor by my host. To me the wine tasted similar to a 20 year old Tawny Port and it made me realise that Ports benefit from the milder UK climate than the heat of Portugal. Furthermore, storage conditions in Portugal were not as good in those days as they are now. So my advice is always choose a British bottling over an Oporto bottling for any Port over 45 years old.  Below I’ve listed out some bone fide British bottlers.

Port Ullages

Do not necessarily be deterred by bad ullages (a bottle where some of the wine seems to be missing) on a bottle of Vintage Port.  I often buy parcels of old Port and drink the one with the worst ullage. I have been constantly amazed that even a wine with a fill level that only reaches the bottle’s shoulder can taste sublime. Indeed, a perfect fill in a 50 year old Port is not common and I would actually always expect a slight ullage. If the fill is perfect it may have been tampered with so again don't expect perfection in terms of appearance when buying old Vintage Port.

Bone Fide Port Bottlers

Buying old Vintage Port can be tricky and the following is a list of bone fide Port bottlers, so if in doubt look out for these:

Averys, Army and Navy, Bentley and Shaw Ltd. (Huddersfield), Peter Bedford, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Blaneys of Newcastle, British Transport Hotels, C Buswell and Co Ltd, Charles Kinloch, Chas. Mckinlay and Co Ltd. (Leith), Christopher and Company, Corney and Barrow, Courtney Wines, Coverdale and Co.(Crutched Friars, London, EC3), Dolamore, Fearon Block, George Sandeman, Grants of St James's, Gilbey Vintners, Hankey Bannister and Company, Hay and Son (Sheffield), J Harvey and Son, Hunter and Oliver (Bury St Edmunds), John Lupton & Son (Bradford, Leeds and Manchester), John Sarson and Co, J. Lovibond and Sons Ltd, J G Thomson & Co Ltd (Leith), Justerini and Brooks, Hedges and Butler, Henekeys Ltd, Hertford Wine Company, Mayer Sworder, Morgan Furze, Newcastle Breweries, Paten and Company (Peterborough), Peatling and Cawdron, Edward Robinson (also spelt Edouard), Robinson and Payne, Schofields, Simon the Cellarer, Skinner Rook and Chambers (Nottingham), Wiley and Co (Sheffield), Williams Standring and The Wine Society.

How to decant Vintage Port

So you’ve made your purchase and now it’s time to serve the wine.  I must say there is some very bad advice out there about how to decant Vintage Port.  Vintage Port needs to be decanted as when it is bottled it is bottled warts and all, as it were, with dead yeast, bits of grape skin and other natural by-products left in.  Over time these settle and ‘throw a crust’ as they say in Port circles and this sediment needs to be removed before serving.

First, you need a corkscrew with a very long screw because Port corks tend to be longer than your average wine cork. Very few cork screws these days have a long enough screw to be able to take the cork out in one go. Don't worry about this. If the cork breaks in half so only the top half comes out straight away you can either pull out the rest with an adapted coat-hanger or push the remaining cork into the wine – one or other is perfectly acceptable or how else are you going to be able to pour?!

Use a coffee filter to decant the Port.  Shock horror you may say, but coffee filters are neutral so they do not taint the wine at all. You can use a muslin but this isn't really necessary, it is just old fashioned and some may say more romantic.

Finally make sure you pour all the wine into a decanter as the filter will catch all the sediment.  I have seen a video of someone decanting a bottle of Port where they have left one and a half inches of wine in the bottle because they didn't use a filter and didn’t want to serve sediment but that’s just such a waste. If you were to buy a bottle of Vintage Port for £500 say, that equates to chucking about £50 worth of Port down the drain. Do not be put off by wine snobs, you are entitled to drink everything you have paid for! Remember also that before 1970 most Port bottles were probably 70cl not 75cl so you need every drop out of that bottle (it was the EU that standardised the 75cl bottle in the early 1970s by the way.)

I hope you've found the above article about evaluating, sourcing and serving Vintage Port useful. Take a look at our website for more from the wonderful world of wine including up-to-date news, the latest affordable fine wine offers from MWH Wine Merchants as well as other wines guides and competitions.


Cheers! Mike