How is Port Made? Briefly, all Port starts out the same. Ripe grapes are harvested (mainly by hand), brought to the winery, crushed, and given a fast, hot fermentation to extract as much color and tannin as possible over three days or less. Then the young wine is decanted into a large vessel filled about half full with grape brandy to fortify the wine and stop fermentation. After that, the wine goes through different types of aging and blending depending on the style being made. Taylor Fladgate offers a great, in-depth description of Port production on their website.
How is Vintage Port Different from Other Ports? Taylor Fladgate offers a great, in-depth, discussion of this topic here. Briefly, though, Port can be broken down into two basic styles – bottle-aged and wood-aged. Wood-aged wines become Tawny Ports and can be bottled young and fresh or given 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years in barrel. They are typically orangey/tawny in color and have aromas and flavors of caramel, toasted nuts, and burnt sugar.
Bottle-aged Ports receive, at most, a short stay in barrel before going into bottle – sometimes this style is called “Vintage Style” Port. The wines are deeply colored purple or red, have lots of fruit, and feature firm tannins that deliver what the English call “grip.” “Ruby” Ports are the bottom of the quality pyramid here, followed by “Reserve” Ports – Graham’s Five Grapes is a famous example. Both Ruby and Reserve Ports are usually blends of wines from different vintages.
In good, not great, years, Port houses often make a wine called Late Bottled Vintage. This is usually a wine that has much of the concentration needed to make vintage Port, but has angular or hard tannins and/or lacks the stuffing needed in a top quality wines. LBV Ports are from a single vintage, but age in barrel for two to four years to soften and open before bottling. They are ready to drink on release, but can improve for a few years in cellar.
Vintage Port is the apex of Port quality, made only in the best years from the very best grapes a winery can get – usually it is less than two percent of an estate’s harvest. Unlike LBV, it spends only a few months in barrel and is bottled no more than 18 months from the vintage.
Do I Have to Age Vintage Port for Decades? You certainly can age wines like these from a vintage like 2011 for many, many years. Warre’s 1970, Graham’s 1966, and Cockburn 1955 were all absolutely delicious when sampled last week! But changes in how grapes are being farmed and how the wine is made mean that you have a much wider window of enjoyment now than ever before.
Until about 20 years ago, you faced two main challenges in drinking Vintage Port young. First, the wine had a lot of brandy in it and that brandy often needed years to fully integrate into the finished wine. Opening a young Port meant getting a heady whiff of alcohol and a bit of searing heat as the wine went down your throat.
While your throat was burning, your mouth was puckering – because Port is always a deeply tannic wine and the young wine’s tannins were typically pretty fierce, rough, and drying. After a decade or so in cellar, the alcohol integrates and the tannins start to soften, giving you a more supple, elegant wine to enjoy after a fine meal.
Over the past 20 years, though, Port has gotten better in two key ways. First, Port makers have invested serious money and effort in understanding how brandy integrates with Port and how to buy brandies that fortify without sticking out and burning. Even as barrel samples, the young 2011 Ports tasted last week already showed fantastic integration of their alcohol, a process that will be largely complete by the time the wines arrive in the USA.
And Port houses have invested even more money in their vineyards, learning how to tend their vines to achieve full phenolic ripeness and softer, silkier, just plain more pleasing tannins than in the past. Yes, all of these young Ports have a LOT of tannin – but it’s so ripe and well developed that it coats your mouth like wet velvet or slides across your palate like fine silk, leaving the right grippy bite behind.
It would be a shame to drink all of your Vintage Port in the first few years of its life in bottle – but perhaps as much a shame to not enjoy a bottle or two at every stage of its long life!
How Long Can I Keep an Open Bottle of Vintage Port? Longer than you think – certainly longer than I used to think! Young Vintage Port is a very robust wine, and while exposure to oxygen will start it on the road to oxidation and fading, the process can take quite a while. Left on a counter at room temperature, an open bottle of young Vintage Port will slowly open and evolve, losing some if its primary fruit but often releasing other interesting flavors in its place. You’ll probably notice some change on the second and third days and then accelerating changes through day five. At some point, the wine will start to taste a little flat – but a full week of good drinking isn’t out of the question.
If you refrigerate the wine between servings, the time frame gets longer. Open a bottle, enjoy some on night one and then put it in the fridge at the end of the evening. Come back to it in a week – it will have evolved some, but still be full of fruit and vigor. The following week, less fruit but maybe some really interesting tar and earthiness. And, in week three, probably less compelling than at first … but still very tasty and fun!
Of course, the older the wine, the faster it will evolve with air, but in general, wines aged 20 years or less will hold up well even after they’ve been open a while.
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