Decanting Vintage Port

Three old Graham's Vintage Ports decanted before dinner and standing on the sideboard at Malvedos

Much is made of decanting vintage port, so much so it can put people off even trying one of Graham’s wonderful vintage ports for fear they will somehow get it wrong and ruin the wine.

The truth is, Vintage Port is one of the easiest and most straightforward of wines to decant.  In fact, we might even recommend you practice your decanting skills on lots of port, before attempting to decant dry table wines!

Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker, is slightly impatient with all the mystery.  He said the simplest fail-safe rule, which will do no harm to any well-made vintage port up to 40 years of age, is to open and decant the wine two to three hours before drinking.  For most of us, intending to drink our vintage ports after a meal, that means opening the bottle and decanting before we settle down to dinner.  What could be easier?

When you take the bottle from the cellar or shelf where it has been resting on its side, simply stand it upright – gently – and let it stand.  If the bottle is less than 40 years old, 5 to 10 minutes is adequate – the sediment in Port is quite heavy and will settle down quickly.  If the wine is very old – more than 40 years – then Charles suggests letting it stand upright a half hour.  More than that is hardly necessary.

Extract the cork gently, and then pour the wine into the decanter:  hold the wine bottle nearly level, so the wine flows smoothly with adequate airflow passing over the wine in the neck of the bottle – this way the wine will fall without the gurgling that comes from blocking the passage of air into the bottle.

Good light will help you spot the sediment moving into the neck as you finish decanting

Decanting is easiest with good light behind the bottle, so you can see clearly the sediment beginning to come into the bottle neck and stop pouring.  If in doubt, simply shift and pour the remaining wine into a glass – that way if there is sediment, you’ve not poured it into the decanter, on the other hand, if the wine is still clear, you can empty the glass contents into the decanter too.  It is always worth taking a quick nose and taste of the wine from the just-opened bottle, and comparing it with the aromas and flavour after a few hours in decanter.

If you are concerned that you may not be able to see the sediment when it reaches the bottle neck, then you may wish to use a funnel lined with a piece of muslin (thin cotton cloth) to catch the sediment as you reach the end of the bottle.

So that’s it:

  • Let the bottle stand upright 10 to 15 minutes if it’s less than 40 years old, and up to 30 minutes if it’s older.
  • If your vintage port is less than 40 years old, decant 2-3 hours before you plan to enjoy your wine; if it is older, better to decant just 30 minutes to an hour before.
  • Pour the wine gently into a decanter and stop pouring when you see the sediment moving into the bottle neck.
  • Optionally, you may pour through a funnel lined with a piece of muslin.
  • Enjoy your vintage port.

Above all, remember part of the great pleasure of fine bottle-aged ports is observing how the aromas and flavours unfold over time; you needn’t worry about missing some single perfect moment, these wines will give pleasure over the entire course of a relaxed evening with friends and family.

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3 thoughts on “Decanting Vintage Port

  1. Thanks for this helpful advice – these are much shorter standing and decanting times than I’d dare use, so it’s good to know.

    Conversely, what is your view about the length of time that vintage ports of different ages can happily live in a decanter before they begin to decline?

    1. Hi Daniel,
      Very mature ports, over 40 years, won’t really hold for another day, let alone more… with a bottle that special, gather your dearest friends round and enjoy the whole bottle between you that night! With younger ports, holding in decanter might be ok for a day or two, if the stopper is snug, but you would do better to decant the wine back into the (rinsed out) bottle and either re-corking, or better, using a vacuum-seal type stopper. Depending on the age of the wine and how long it sat out open before being sealed again, you could be ok for one to three days. An older wine re-sealed after six or seven hours for example, probably won’t hold over as well as a very young vintage re-sealed after just a few hours.

      Part of the fascination of vintage port is gaining experience and learning your personal preferences for things like decanting times. Charles recommends these guidelines as safe starting points – beyond that, experiment and learn how different wines develop after opening. It’s worth taking a taste when it’s first opened, after an hour, after two hours… and if you and your friends are finishing a bottle in one evening, maybe save a taste for the next day, just to see what it’s like.

      One other thought: if you usually share your port with just a small group, you might look for half bottles – they are out there for more recent vintages, and solve the concern about holding over. Enjoy!

  2. Many thanks for the detailed reply Cynthia. Again, I need to alter my approach as I had been giving 20-30 year old ports a 12-24hr decant. I do usually taste straight away, and then occasionally while waiting. My experience is that they do ‘plateau’ after a few hours, and it is good to know that not so much time is required.

    I am certainly looking out for half bottles – such a useful size for vintage port. I enjoyed a half bottle of 1994 Graham’s recently (decanted 24 hrs I’m afraid…), which was nonetheless drinking wonderfully well. Close to perfect for such a youngish vintage.

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