We sell a lot of vintage Port, particularly around Christmastime, and I always like to give customers a few hints and tips about decanting and opening old Vintage Port. This is easy enough if one is face-to-face with a customer in the shop but slightly more difficult if the customer has placed the order online.
Just after Christmas I had the email (below) from a customer who bought a bottle Ramos Pinto 1983 Vintage Port from us online and struggled with the fragile and crumbly Port cork. I thought it would be good to share the email (names withheld) and my response as this is not the first time I have had a similar conversation with customers. I hope this helps anyone else that has similar problems opening old Vintage Port and removing the fragile corks.
“…….. however when we came to open the port it didn’t go very well. After taking off the foil seal the cork appeared fine but as soon as we tried to extract it it disintegrated and contaminated the port. As you can imagine this was very disappointing and we had to strain the contents to get rid of the cork that had crumbled into the port.
I have saved the cork and took photos as we attempted to opened the bottle. I wonder if you would be able to explain to me why this happened and what we should or shouldn’t have done. This was our first bottle of port at this sort of price and were totally unprepared for what happened.”
Unfortunately, older Vintage Port corks, which are normally longer and higher quality than standard corks, can become very friable and difficult to remove from the bottle and if one is expecting the cork to pop out like your normal weekend bottle of wine it can be a bit of a surprise.
Here is my response,
“……. I am sorry to hear about the problems that you had opening your bottle of Port but this is pretty much normal condition for a cork in a bottle of vintage Port of this age. Over time, and this cork has been in the bottle 30 year plus, they do become very soft and fragile, and this happens when the Port has been stored correctly on its side. The particular bottle you purchased from us came directly from the Port house in the last year, so it should have been aged in optimum conditions. The wine would not have been contaminated, the Port has been on contact with the the cork since bottling after all.
All one can really do is to be prepared for this when opening bottles of this age. This means a very good corkscrew. Vintage Port corks are very good quality and longer than average corks as they do have to do their job for many years. Modern corkscrews are not very good for this. The worse type are the lever type corkscrews, ones that do not have a good, wide open “worm” (the spiral metal bit) or where the worm is not long enough to get to (or through) the bottom of the cork. I still find the best type of corkscrew is a high quality, two step, waiters friend.
However, because opening old vintage Port is a tricky, I also have a Butler’s Thief, whose prongs slide down the outside of the cork for opening really old, fragile bottles of Port. Some people use Port tongs to remove the neck of the bottle, but this might be a bit too much bother for most.
There are many times that I have opened a vintage Port when the cork has disintegrated, just like yours. On occasion if I haven’t been able to get all the cork out I have simply pushed it in. Of course, if you do this, you will need to remove and cork bits. I use a simple decanting funnel which has a double mesh filter. This removes all the cork bits that might be left. Many people use muslin or coffee filters (unbleached) and even fine denier tights!
I hope you enjoyed the Port when you had strained it. I have tried this one a few times over the years and it has always been excellent.
I hope this gives you a few ideas and I hope you aren’t put off trying an older vintage Port again!”
In fact, I had another email from the customer, and, in the end, they removed the cork as best they could and filtered the Port through some muslin, which is pretty much the way I do it if I have a very troublesome cork, as I mentioned in my response. I have had to do this on a number of occasions! The important thing is not to be too precious. Decant the Port as best you can to leave the sediment behind and if one needs to filter the Port though something to remove any small bits of cork, so be it. It is not an exact science!
Does anyone else have any handy hints and tips for opening old Vintage Port bottles? Has anyone tried filtering Port through tights? What denier did you use? I once saw someone filter some cork bits out of some Cognac through a freshly removed sock!
To find out more about how and why to decant Port please refer to this blog post, A Guide To Decanting Port.