A lot is written on decanting Port and I felt it was time to add a few of my own tips and musings on the subject. Some feel decanting Port is a tricky business that is best left to men in the cellar or garage, but decanting Port really isn’t that complicated and I am going to try and explain it as best as possible. It is with pleasure that I present A Guide to Decanting Port – and I am sure that everyone will have their own variations!
There are two main reasons for decanting port. The first is simply to remove the sediment which forms in the bottle which is rather unpleasant and gritty to drink. The sediment is essentially dead yeast cells, or lees, and, in Vintage Port, particulate matter from the grape skins, seeds and stems.
The second is that some ports, particularly younger vintage ports will benefit from being decanted to allow them to breathe and develop in the decanter. To a certain extent this is also true of older Ports too. More about this below.
No, not all Port needs decanting. There are basically two types of ports: bottle-aged port and wood-aged ports. Bottle-aged ports require decanting, however please note a couple of minor exceptions below. The wood-aged ports will be filtered during the bottling process and do not require decanting, again with the odd exception.
Crusted Port – Usually a blend of two or three different vintages of Port which is bottled unfiltered and will “throw a crust” i.e. develop sediment. “Crusted” is perhaps a bit of a strange old-fashioned name and I did have someone ask me once how to break the crust to get to the Port! Niepoort make a fantastic Crusted Port.
Single Quinta Vintage Port – made in exactly the same way as a vintage port but in a “non-vintage” year and usually from the best properties of the Port house e.g. Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim or Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos. In some years these wines can be as great as Vintage Ports, some 1978s were very good. Some produce a Single Quinta every year e.g. the Symington Family’s Quinta do Vesuvio.
Vintage Port – the most famous, traditional style of port for decanting and the longest lasting. The port develops more sediment with age and, as people tend to drink Vintage Port (VP) when it is quite old, it tends to be the port that “throws” the most sediment. Therefore it is most important to decant Vintage Port properly to ensure one obtains maximum satisfaction from that expensive, old bottle that has been cellared for years.
Ruby Port – the youngest style of port, does not need decanting
Tawny Port – at the bottom end Tawny Port can be a cheap blend of ruby and white port to mimic a tawny colour. “Proper” Tawny Port is barrel-aged from basic young Tawnies up to 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old Tawny Ports. All are filtered on bottling and do not require decanting. See also Colheita Port. Niepoort Senior Tawny Port is a very good example of an aged Tawny.
Rosé Port – A new category of Port, basically a ruby Port that only has light skin contact. Serve chilled. Or perhaps a white Port with a bit of red Port added, I am not sure. The only one I have tried wasn’t very nice!
White Port – Most White Port is sold as Dry or Extra Dry White port but another new category has recently been introduced, a 10 Year Old White Port. I have not really experimented with this, but I wonder if a 10 Year Old White Port might benefit from decanting to allow the Port to develop in the decanter. I believe there will be 20 year old (and most likely a 30 and 40 year old) White Port to come in due course.
Traditional or Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) – LBV has to be aged between 4 to 6 years in barrel prior to bottling. Some producers believe that filtering Port removes a lot of desirable characteristics, and affects the quality, of the Port so they are bottled unfiltered e.g. Niepoort LBV or Krohn LBV. Unfiltered LBVs will be best if decanted, filtered LBVs won’t need decanting. Most LBV Ports are drunk relatively young therefore the Port can benefit from letting the air get to it as well.
Colheita Port – some Colheita Ports (single vintage tawnies, aged at least 7 years in barrel) may develop a fine sediment in the bottle after some time in the bottle. They may benefit from decanting.
Garrafeira Port – a rare type of vintage Port, from a single harvest, that is aged between 3 and 6 years in barrel followed by at least 8 years in large (11 litre) glass demijohns, before bottling. Often the Ports are kept in the demijohns, known as “bon-bons”, for many years prior to bottling. Niepoort is one of only a few Port producers who produce Garrafeira Port.
It doesn’t really matter what decanter you use, it is down to personal taste really. The most traditional Port decanter is a ship’s decanter – these tend to have a wide flat base rising to a narrow, graceful neck with a stopper. I prefer my decanters to be plain with no cut-glass patterns on them purely so I can really see the Port itself with no added distractions. There are plenty on the market. At the end of the day you could just use a clean glass jug! It is important to have a clean and dry decanter, any musty smells or soap residue could transfer to the Port. Even with a clean and dry decanter it is a good idea to rinse the decanter with a cheaper port, or even a little red wine to remove any nasty aromas.
I am going to split this into traditional and non-traditional methods of decanting Port. I probably use a mixture of both, depending on how organised I am and how much time I have! Purists will probably not be impressed with the non-traditional method. Both methods have some things in common. The basics are the same. I’ll mention the more non-traditional methods you can use after the traditional.
Please assume we are discussing Vintage Port from now on.
Let the Port Stand Upright.
This is where one you needs a bit of forethought. Decanting Port is a lot easier if you know when you know you are going to be drinking it, especially if you are not going to use any of the non-traditional methods. Assuming the bottle of Port has been stored correctly, i.e. on its side, the sediment will have settled and formed up one side of the bottle. Therefore you need to let the bottle of Port stand upright for 3 to 4 days to allow the sediment to work its way down to the bottom of the bottle. Ideally a week would be good just to allow the sediment to settle as best as possible and to make decanting Port easier. If you don’t have time to do this, see my tips below reference filters and filtering.
You may have noticed that some bottles of Vintage Port have a big white paint mark on them, this is not an accident in the winery! This practice seems to be less common than was. The cellar hands used to daub some whitewash on the bottle so they could tell which side the sediment would have settled on.
One traditional method for decanting port requires equipment which one rarely sees these days – the Port Cradle. This is essentially a cradle in which one places the bottle of VP on
its side. I am not sure whether one was supposed to think ahead and place the bottle in the cradle for the sediment to settle out or if you very gingerly place the VP bottle in the cradle hoping not to dislodge the sediment and then grapple with the cork. It would be important to know which side of the bottle the sediment is settled on. A winding mechanism then allows one to pour the Port very slowly. Most would have a candle holder built-in to allow the person decanting to see through the neck as best as possible so they can stop pouring when the first sediment appears.
You may find that your bottle of Port has a plain foil capsule but some older bottles may have a wax seal instead of, or as well as, the foil. When you set the bottle of Port upright it is worthwhile, perhaps, removing the foil or wax and, if you fancy, cleaning the top with a small brush so as to prevent any debris coming into contact with the wine.
I prefer a normal, good quality, two-stage waiter’s friend corkscrew to remove the cork. Vintage Port corks are normally of very good quality and are normally quite long. You definitely need a corkscrew with a good, wide worm and not a lever arch model, or you might find you strip out the middle of the cork. They also become very fragile with age. So, on older Vintage Ports, I like to use a butler’s thief (tourne bouchon).
These are very efficient at removing old and friable corks. Basically the idea is to get the cork out in piece, or as close to one piece as possible without disturbing the sediment. It is not the end of the world if you can’t get the cork out in one piece or if there are bits of cork floating in the bottle, these can be filtered out. You may even find that you have to end up pushing the last bit of cork back into the bottle. It might be worth thinking about removing the capsule a few days before you decant the port as this would any sediment disturbed in the process to settle again.
The more adventurous Port wine drinkers might want to experiment with Port tongs. These are metal tongs, designed to be heated up and applied to the neck of the Port bottle followed by an ice cube or cold, wet cloth. The heat shock causes a clean break and the whole top of the neck , cork in place, is removed in one piece. Very impressive, but a lot of hassle, perhaps best if you like playing to an audience. Not something you see very often.
So at this stage you will have a clean decanter, an opened bottle of Port that has been upright for a good few days, a good light source, perhaps a Port funnel and a steady hand!
The most important part of the next step is to ensure you pour the port from the bottle to the decanter in one, gentle, fluid motion stopping just as, or before, the first bits of sediment start to come out of the bottle. You do not want to have to stop and return the bottle to upright mid-decanting – this is a sure-fire way of mixing sediment straight back into the Port and ruining all your good work thus far. So if the phone rings, ignore it!
The second most important thing is not to try and get as much port as possible out of your bottle – it is okay to leave the last few centimetres with all the sediment. It is not worth trying to get the last few drops of Port out of the bottle bringing a whole load of sediment with it. The resultant Port will be all the more pleasant to drink. If you must use the last of the dregs for something use it to enrich a gravy or chuck it into a red wine vinagre.
I mentioned a good light source. I find that a well-lit room is fine and good enough to see when the sediment is starting to come through. I think the days of decanting Port in a dark room with a candle behind the bottle are probably all but finished, but some people do insist on using a torch, or even a head-torch to light the neck of the bottle when decanting Port. A good Port funnel is an essential tool too.
It is easy enough decanting Port from the bottle into the neck a decanter. A traditional Port funnel, usually a silver bowl type funnel helps direct the Port into the decanter but, perhaps more importantly, with a good light source a silver Port funnel is great for reflecting light thus enabling one to clearly see when sediment starts to come through.
More modern Port funnels sometimes include a filter of some sort, and it is one of these that I normally use. The best have a very fine metal screen / mesh and it is usually a double layer. Le Crueset make a very good one.
Alternatively, you can use a wine funnel or a normal funnel for decanting Port if you line it with an untreated, natural piece of muslin or cheesecloth.
Really, after decanting Port, the only thing left to do is to drink it! There are various articles written about the etiquette of drinking port so I won’t cover this here but I will mention how long various Ports will keep in a decanter.
All Ports develop in decanter but the the older Vintages are also the first Ports to oxidise and go out of condition, however a good three to four hours in the decanter is not a problem for most Ports. Decanting Port is basically introducing air to the Port. Light is also a factor in the degradation of Ports and wines too. Older, fully mature, Vintage Ports (such as 1963s or 1970s) will initially develop and bloom in a decanter but you’ll find, perhaps, as soon as the morning after serving the Port, it will be noticeably oxidised. Younger vintage Ports, such as 1994s or 1997s (quite young in terms of Vintage Port), will develop much more slowly on exposure to air and you might find you have four or five days to enjoy the Port before you notice any signs of degradation.
Tawny Ports, being wood aged, are a naturally oxidised style of Port and, whilst they do not need to be decanted for sediment reasons, can be decanted (after all, one of the reasons for decanting Port is to show off the colour) and may last a couple of weeks before oxidation makes the wine undrinkable.
In general, storing Port in a decanter is not the best way of storing Port if you don’t won’t to drink it all in one go. Quite often for tastings etc., if I want to use the Port over a few days after decanting Port, I rinse out the bottle out, put the Port back in the bottle and “Vacuvin” the Port. This allows you to keep the Port in optimum condition for as long as possible – possibly not relevant in a domestic setting!