As with all port, vintage port comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. This slightly more boujee port is a pure expression of a time and place, made only in the best years. If you are wondering how to drink vintage port or what to pair it with, this guide will equip you with all the information you need to become a vintage port connoisseur.
What Is Vintage Port?
Like Champagne, port can be either vintage or non-vintage. Vintage ports are created during exceptional growing years when the grapes have ideal conditions. Conversely, non-vintage ports contain a blend of grapes from various years. While both vintage and non-vintage ports can be of high quality, vintage ports tend to be the crème de la crème in the port world.
Flavor Profile and Characteristics
This rich, fortified dessert wine has deeply saturated hues of purple and ruby red. It is full-bodied with a rich mouthfeel and notes of blackberry, black cherry, baked fruits, fig, fall baking spices, coffee, and chocolate.
How Vintage Port Is Made
Vintage ports only make up a small percentage of overall port production. When the growing conditions are just right, it is deemed a 'declared year', and producers will make vintage port. If it is a particular wet year and the grapes are waterlogged or the vineyard is producing sub-par fruit in response to other inclement weather or pests, vintage port will not be produced. In this case, vintners will proceed with making non-vintage port.
Vintage port is made from a blend of native Portuguese grapes such as touriga franca, touriga nacional, tinta barroca, tinto cão, and tinta roriz. The grapes are hand-harvested, crushed, and fermented. Toward the end of fermentation, a neutral grape spirit such as brandy is added, which stops the fermentation process before the yeasts have consumed all the sugars. This process creates the sweeter, high alcohol, dessert wine that we all know and love. Vintage port is aged for a about two years in oak casks prior to bottling.
How To Serve Vintage Port
Time to pour yourself a luscious glass of the stuff? You've likely really thrown down for the bottle, so do yourself a favor and take care to serve your vintage port with some love. First, the port should be served at about 65°F (18°C) to make sure that all the flavors shine through in harmony. Second, remember, this is a heavy-hitter dessert wine, so find an appropriate glass. Port wine glasses are ideal, but any dessert glass will do. A 3-ounce pour is standard for a vintage port.
Third, the bottles are typically corked, so you open them with a corkscrew, just as you would any other bottle of wine. If the bottle has been aged for a substantial amount of time (10-30 years), there's a good chance the cork might be crumbly. In this case, take care so you don't wind up with crumbled cork in your wine.
Finally, an aged vintage port will likely need decanting, as it accumulates lots of sediment in the bottle over time. Any decanter will do, although for extra style points you can use one designed specifically for port. Once opened, your port will last longer than a normal red wine, but it will start to deteriorate as it is exposed to oxygen. Now is when you would throw your bottle in the fridge to slow down oxidation. Plan to drink it within a couple weeks.
Food Pairing Suggestions
Pairing your vintage port with strong cheese such as Stilton or other washed-rind cheeses brings a pleasant piquant characterstic that balances the luscious sweetness. Building a cheese plate of fresh berries, dried fig, nuts, and rich cheeses pairs beautifully with vintage port. You can also think of matching some of the flavors that are in the port and pair your glass with a rich, dark chocolate cake with salted caramel buttercream, smokey roasted nuts, or a coffee flan. Or, perhaps, you wish to sip on your vintage port sans food. It truly is a dessert in and of itself.
How to Store Your Port
Long lasting vintage ports are made to age. Particularly fine vintage ports will continue to gain complexity and drink well for many decades after they were bottled.
Long Term Aging
Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two years before bottling. They typically require another 10 to 30 years of bottle aging (or more) before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age. Like all wines, vintage port should be stored on its side in temperature-controlled conditions away from light and vibration. The ideal storage temperature for vintage port is about 55°F (12°C), so keep in mind that the refrigerator is too cold for long term storage. Because the port is unfined and unfiltered, there is a significant amount of sediment that collects overtime. Positioning the bottle so the sediment falls to the bottom at opening is best.
How to Tell if Vintage Port Has Gone Bad
Vintage port is made to age. Because of the fortification and high sugar content, it's likely you can store a quality vintage port for years, or even decades. However, it is possible for it to go bad if it is improperly stored or past its prime. In this case, you would notice a muted, brownish color and dull aromas upon opening. It could taste lifeless and stale. You could also notice unpleasant aromas of vinegar or cabbage. In either of these scenarios, the port has likely taken a turn, and it's best to let it go.
Purchasing Vintage Port
When purchasing vintage ports, you are either purchasing a newer port with the intent to age it, or purchasing an older port that has already been aged. If you like the more fresh, vibrant flavors from your port, you may want to look for some of the younger vintages. If you prefer the more nutty oxidized expressions with silky smooth texture, then you may want to look for the older vintages. Either way, these are pricey little bottles, so you'll want to spend sometime chatting with the shop owner to find the best bottle to put your money towards. Some of the best declared vintages are 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2017.
Aged to Perfection
If you are not familiar with vintage port and would like to take the dive, visit your local wine shop and get chatting with the proprietor to find something truly special. This exclusive and delicious style of port is a unique reflection of a single year that will carry you all the way into the depths of the Douro Valley as you sip.