Our Question For The Port Trade comes from David Leachman of Watchung, New Jersey, USA, who asks What do they think the optimum decanting time is for all their past vintages? David goes on to comment, "I've had a 1970 Taylor that was decanted for 7 hours and was just beginning to open up when we consumed the last drop. I've had a 1970 Graham that was perfect after 7 hours, but lost steam after 8-9 hours. I would love to know what the various producers would say about this."
Paul Symington, Joint Managing Director, Symington Family Estates
The question of decanting time is an interesting one and will of course produce different opinions.
My view is that the younger wines will produce their full beauty and power just a short time after opening, approximately one or two hours after decanting. These are rich and complex wines, full of vigour, fruit and spicy tannins. These flavours and aromas will all become apparent soon after the wine comes into contact with the air. These younger wines will also stay in excellent condition for some time after decanting, particularly if they are protected from excessive oxidization. For ‘younger’ Vintage Ports, I mean wines from the 1990’s and younger. I would strongly recommend, if the bottle is not consumed at one sitting, that the remaining wine is poured back into the (rinsed) original bottle and a vacuvin used to remove some of the air. This will keep the Vintage Port in very good condition for some days. Vintage Port in a half empty decanter will gradually loose its freshness far quicker than a bottle that offers better insulation from the air.
For Vintage Ports from the 1980’s and back to very ancient pre-war wines, there is no doubt that these are more delicate and that they benefit from decanting rather longer before serving. I have seen wines like the Dow 1896, probably the finest I have ever tasted, become completely transformed 3 to 4 hours after opening. To begin with the wine is closed and dumb. After a few hours very fine and delicate aromas emerge, producing a unique experience, to the extent that even the virtually empty glass still holds a superb and almost ethereal aroma. I have watched tasters of this ancient Vintage Port return again and again to their empty glass just to enjoy the unique aroma of one of the 19th century’s greatest wines that persists in the glass. On the other hand, by the next day, these very old wines have usually lost some of these delicate aromas and flavours. They no longer have the strength to cope with the harsh impact of the air on the wine.
While on this subject, I do feel strongly that decanting should be seen as a simple and easy task rather than the complex and formal procedure often described in books. I very rarely use any form of filter (unless the cork disintegrates). Standing the bottle up-right for about one hour is usually more than sufficient. The deposit in a Vintage Port is substantially more than in virtually any other wine simply because it has had no fining or filtration whatsoever. Therefore the heavy sediment settles very easily to the base of the bottle after standing up. An important point is to leave the bottle for a short time (15 to 20 minutes) after pulling the cork; this will allow the deposit to settle again. All you then need is a steady hand and a freshly rinsed decanter. Many is the time at our Quintas in the Douro that we have gone down to the cellar to get another bottle and poured carefully directly from the un-decanted bottle into the glasses. The Vintage Port tastes superb. A long and complex decanting procedure is a barrier to enjoying great Vintage Port; it should be simple and straightforward. Decanting a very old Burgundy or Bordeaux, with its very fine sediment, is more difficult and if not well done, will leave a distinct haze in the wine.
Jerry Luper, Technical Director, Real Companhia Velha (Royal Oporto brand in the USA)
Contrary to the supposition of the reader, I, for one, taste old vintages extremely rarely and therefore feel unqualified to pronounce on the subject.
In general, I would treat old vintage Ports just like wine. Since they are not aged a long time in small wood containers and therefore not extremely oxidized (sorry for the unromantic terminology), like Colheita tawnys, the fruit is fragile and can be lost if one decants and aerates for a long time. Also, the other purpose of long bottle age is to develop bottle bouquet (those mellow aromas produced under reductive conditions.) Again, long aeration of a wine after decanting may cause one to miss the enjoyment of those wonderful bouquets.
Personally, in an ideal situation (which happens rarely at dinner parties), I would pour a glass right away after decanting and take an hour to enjoy the "opening up" process.
Christian Seely, Managing Director AXA-Millésimes Wine Group, which includes Quinta do Noval
David, I don't really think there is a golden rule, since as you say, decanting a long time in advance can be great for some bottles, and less so for others. I normally decant Vintage Ports that are between fifteen and forty years old at around 6 o'clock in the evening. By the time we get to drinking them, following the Noval dinner start time of 8.30, it is usually around 10.30-11.00, so they will have had about four to four and a half hours. This seems to give most wines sufficient time to open up, and definitely a superior result to those last minute decantings when you decide at 11.30 pm that it is time for another bottle - though I would be the last person to discourage such activity, having been guilty of it many times myself. It does seem to be a universal problem that the very last drops of the very last glass of a great Vintage Port are always the most delicious, leaving one yearning for more. This could be the origin of the theory that the wine should have been decanted even earlier, but I think one should bear in mind that not only might the wine be getting better as the evening progresses: the same phenomenon applies also to the civilised Port drinker, and this could be an explanation. It is in any case an excellent argument for Magnums.
I would tend to decant much older wines fairly shortly before tasting, as sometimes the old glory of the bouquet can be quite evanescent and it would be a shame to lose it.
George Sandeman, Board Member, Institutional Representation, Sogrape Vinhos S.A, Portugal
As far as I am aware there is no tabulated statistical information relating to “decanting time” for older Vintage Ports. At Sandeman we once did a quite lengthy study on the “open bottle shelf-life” for our wines (Ports), which clearly showed (no surprise!) that mature Vintage Port should be consumed within 24 hours in order to be in optimum condition, while young Vintages, with less than 8 years stand up quite well for several days.
David Leachman’s question is a conundrum, it is a “how long is a piece of string?” type of question, with so many variables and unknown factors that make it tough to answer and almost impossible to tabulate.
To do so with any of accuracy would require Herculean (although pleasurable) task of tasting Vintages from various years and shippers. Even worse, to keep any table of statistics update in any meaningful form would require regular re-tasting and reporting. While I would be most willing to undertake this tremendous chore (oh woe is me! Having to taste my way through the complete list of Vintage Ports…..) I have little doubt that I would have few sponsors!
Well, having set this vaguely negative panorama let me explain how I arrive at this conclusion.
When I read David’s question I thought “wow, cool idea”. I mean having a guideline of how much time I should decant a Vintage Port for it to be in perfect condition to drink after opening it is a great idea!
The only person who I know who has done any work of this kind – I mean disciplined, tabulated, timed and documented - is Martin Gersh, who was writing the wine column for Vogue in the mid-80’s (I was there, I remember). However, Martin had a different take on this thorny problem, but the “decanting time” issue could have been extrapolated from his findings.
Martin was after the other answer that we all seek; “when will this wine be at its best?” For this he would take a bottle and through timing and logging the combination of opening, tasting and passing the wine a number of times between two decanters would arrive at an estimate of longevity. He had built a remarkable base of statistical knowledge when I had the great pleasure of meeting him, and if he was unable to completely convince the Wine Trade that his methodology was statistically plausible, he did convince me (in the 80’s ) that all wines benefit from decanting – even the young ones!
Ok, I digress, back to the issue. Assuming that we consider the variables that influence the statistics we are seeking we would be overwhelmed by one single unknown “How has the wine been stored?”
I take as an example a “mind-blowing” experience that I had at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa Florida. I had been doing one of those “winemaker tastings” with Sandeman Ports, including our recently released 1997 Vintage, when I was presented with a glass containing a red liquid and the (always dreaded) question “So what is it?”
I tasted the wine and responded “It’s wine, it’s red, it’s fortified, it’s Port, I am assuming that it is Sandeman because you are asking me!” Well, happily I was correct up to this point. Venturing on, I volunteered “It’s Vintage…and relatively young…..”
But which Vintage? Well I went through my mental inventory of our recent Vintages, 1997? no way, 1994? no, 1985? too intense, 1982? 1980? too young. Could it be Sandeman Quinta do Vau 1988? No, not the same style…
Absolutely stumped, I gave up (trying to look curiously cool in this moment of embarrassment and feeling rather like someone asked who would win the next World Cup). “What is it? Obviously very good and with lots of potential!”
The answer “1963!”
“1963? No way!” “Way!” Bought in 1969, the wine had been stored in the remarkably cool cellars and matured very (very) slowly, so that in 30 years later in 1999 it had progressed the equivalent of about 5 years and was tasting like Sandeman 1963 would have tasted in 1974. Unreal!
Ok, back to the question. Although this is an exaggerated example, it is relevant because it demonstrates the effect of cellaring. If the wines have been in Gaia or a good cellar they will have developed more slowly, but if they have arrived at your wine merchant via auction houses in London or brokers wherever, from collectors’ cellars or via the Cape of Good Hope they will show different evolution and ruin the tabulated statistics.
Aside from this one should recall that Vintage Ports prior to 1975 (a “good breakfast Vintage” was Bruce Guimaraens take on this wine) were bottled by various people – I mean wine merchants in the UK who bought it in pipes. People like Avery’s of Bristol.
I spoke to John Avery and told him about “The Question” and his immediate response was “Well, where was it bottled and how was it stored?”
I spoke to Patrick Sandeman, of Lea & Sandeman, renowned wine merchant in London – and my brother – who has a vast experience on wine and is a member of the Vintners Company – who responded with “what was the provenance of the wine?” and then concluded that it is virtually impossible to accurately predict the “opening time” in any statistically credible manner.
In 2001 I had the privilege of being the Treasurer of the Factory House in Porto where the highlight is the Treasure’s dinner, held in November towards the end of the year long responsibility. This dinner is what the Treasurer is truly remembered by so it is a challenge to make it memorable.
I was fortunate that my father had placed some Sandeman 1945 in the cellar when he became a member and in his memory we decided to serve the wine. Everyone agreed that it was drinking wonderfully but still could go a way. A couple of months later I was invited to do a tasting for a wonderful City (of London) restaurant called The Don and located at 20 St. Swithin’s Lane – the site of the original Sandeman cellars in London (hence the name….and the invitation).
The highlight was to be Sandeman 1945. Mindful of the wonderful wine served at the Factory, I was delighted. On the night I checked the bottles and saw that they were London bottling, but the wax seals showed “Sandeman” which meant they had been bottled on the site of the restaurant. The wines had been sold in the Trade but found their way back home (almost). This journey - long or short – had evolved the wines to a completely different style. The 1945 at the Factory was still overtly ruby in color with mature red fruit aromas. The 1945 at The Don was more evolved, lighter, showing hints of tawny and dried fruit aromas.
It would have been impossible to ascertain the “decanting time” of this Sandeman 1945. Even with a Porto bottled Vintage Port it would depend on when it had been shipped, where, to whom etc.etc.
So what advice can I give? First of all if you can buy on release and store it yourself you can control the evolution. This is not always possible and frankly there are a lot of great wines around in a lot of great wine merchants so buying a bottle of relatively mature Vintage Port is a viable option.
Some small guidelines (that I am sure you have already been told!) besides the eternal caveat emptor:
- Check the level and don’t buy anything that does not look full (although I have had a Sandeman 1955 with a mid-shoulder fill and was really surprised by how good it was. Evolved, tawny, but still great.)
- Check to see if there has been any seepage, look around the capsule, press the top of the capsule and see if it firm or spongy (firm is better)
- If it is a wax finish, see if there are cracks and any sticky residue indicating seepage. Seepage is more often than not caused by temperature fluctuations
- If you buy at auction, buy in “original wooden case” and check that it has not been opened. Often there are case markings which indicate where the wine has been.
- At the end of the day, you have to be prepared to experience the differences of bottles evolution; after all it is part of the experience.
There is another way to do it, and I am assured it is the best way, is to buy a case of the wine you are interested in and open a bottle from time to time as it approaches maturity, say every five years. Evaluate the aging potential and the note the time between opening and optimum drinking.
Experience shows (I am told) that when you reach the 12th bottle the wine should be in optimum condition to drink, and you will know exactly how long before to decant it! The problem is that it will be the last bottle! So, as the old wag quipped “buy two cases” – in this way you will still have a full case to enjoy!
Seriously, both John Avery and Patrick Sandeman agreed with me that it is better to reduce the “decanting time”, particularly in older wines which are known to be advanced, and to “work” the wine in your glass.
One can also use the Martin Gersh’s approach and if upon opening the wine you see it is still very youthful, “double decant” it, passing it between two decanters to aerate it (I have done this many times). For Vintage Port don’t forget that if you decant it before dinner it will have at least two hours until it is served, and during this time it will open up.
I agree with David, there is nothing sadder than having a wine only come to its full potential with the last glass but unfortunately it happens a lot. A couple of weeks ago I had lunch at the Factory and the Vintage served was obviously good but a little “dull”, by the last glass it was really alive. It turned out to be Robertson 1977 (owned by Sandeman since 1953).
On another occasion we received a visit of the renowned “20% Club” from Sweden. They specialize in the special wines (fortified wines such as Port and Madeira). The asked us to share some of the older Vintage Ports with them, and brought wines from their collection. As a token of their appreciation the wine they brought as the highlight was Sandeman 1873 (bottled in Sweden).
After tasting all the other Vintages (which included the “greats” of each decade and some lesser know stars) we opened the 1873. As I sniffed the first glass prior to decanting, I was very disappointed – it smelt of chicken-sh?t (I know! I camped with the Scouts one year downwind of a chicken farm in Scotland!). Well I decanted it and started to say something along the lines “it has a little bottle stink”, but as we poured it the “stink” disappeared and was replaced by a wonderful aroma of violets. It continued to evolve for about another half hour and then began to fade away in our glasses.
PS. Roy, maybe you could set up a database and get your readers to send in the information when they open and decant Vintage Port. If they send in the details of the wine, including if it was Oporto bottled (for wines 1970 and before), and when they decanted it and how long it took for the wine to become “optimum”, it would be a great feature.
Thank you to all of the Port Trade members above who took their time to provide the great responses to this month’s question! This is our monthly column, where the Port trade is invited to respond to your question on Port. Next month's Question For The Port Trade comes from Yerzhan Vaitekunas of Astana, Kazakhstan, who writes,
I have very basic question that I would like to understand better. I drink as much Port as I can afford, but concerns which vintage should I avoid drinking now. I know in Bordeaux bottles go through phase and close up or is it shut down? Is this same thing that I have seen in your Forum as "dumb phase" and if yes, what makes this to happen in Vintage Port? Is there special time that this to happen for all Vintage? How do you know when that phase is done, is there specific number of years?