Simon Milroy, Manager at Majestic Wine Battersea, discusses different syles and varieties of port – and clears up a notorious matter of after-dinner etiquette!

Decanter & GlassIt’s the age old post dinner argument, which way do you pass the port? It is of course meant to be passed to the left and if being a stickler for tradition no one can put the bottle down apart from the host. Some traditional Port decanters have a rounded bottom so you can’t actually put it down except in a special holder kept next to the host.
Starting with the basics, Port is a fortified wine. That means that the fermentation is prematurely arrested by the addition of a neutral spirit which both raises the alcohol level to about 20% and leaves residual sugar giving the wine sweetness. However it is the following maturation that determines the style.
Broadly speaking, port can be divided into two basic styles, wine that has spent most of its life in an oak cask and is ready for drinking, or wine that spends a little time in oak then most of its life developing in the bottle. This can be further split into the individual styles one sees on the shelf.
Ruby port is the simplest style, being a blend of young wines creating a straight forward fruity style. However it is worth trading up slightly to Late bottled vintage port, which is from a single year and will have spent between four and six years ageing in cask. This can then be either filtered and stabilised, such a Taylor’s LBV 2003 which can be opened and drunk with no need for decanting or sold as unfiltered as is Fonseca’s unfiltered LBV 2003, which will ideally need decanting (or careful pouring). Leaving the wine unfiltered adds concentration and intensity.
A variety of PortsAnother great alternative to vintage port is Crusted port. This is a wine that is a blend of different years and is also bottled young with no filtration. It will continue to develop in the bottle (if you can wait) and will need decanting before serving. Fonseca’s Crusted Port is rich, powerful and has more body than the LBV’s.
A favourite of mine is Tawny port. These are wines that spend all their life in casks and as a result are much lighter in colour (Tawny!) and offer a softer less fruit driven style of port that show great finesse and nutty characters. They normally are found designated as 10, 20, 30 or 40 year old, although confusingly they are a blend of many years and just need to have the character of the associated age. Taylor’s 10 year old Tawny port is a great example of this style.

Finally we have vintage and vintage style ports. Vintage ports are only produced in the best of years (usually about three times in a decade) and are bottled after two to three years in cask. They then continue to age for long time in the bottle. This style of port in normally offered for sale early and much is sold via en primeur. In the other undeclared vintages, port houses produce what is known as a single Quinta (vineyard) wine that shows the vintage and is aged in Oporto until ready for drinking. This offers a very similar style to vintage port at a reduced price with no need to cellar it further. All vintage styles should be decanted and they should be treated like a still wine and drunk within two or three days after opening. Try either the Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2001 or Delaforce’s Quinta da Corte 1991 for great examples of the single Quinta style. And remember, next time you have port, pass it to the left!

Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 (with Gift Carton)
£12.99 or £9.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

Renowned for their succulently plum-rich Ports, this Late Bottled Vintage is a classic example from Taylor’s. Spicy with sumptuous wood and fruit flavours it makes for a satisfying after dinner treat.

Fonseca Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage 2003 (with Gift Carton)
£14.99 or £12.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

A deliciously fruited and softly structured port from the revered Fonseca house. Full of plum and raisin aromas with a deep and long finish. Great after dinner quaffing.

Fonseca Crusted Port NV (with individual wooden gift case)
£15.99 or £13.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

Crusted is a rare, traditional style of Port blended and bottled with no filtration to allow potential for further ageing in the bottle. Rich and full-bodied in style, it can be drunk now, but needs careful decanting.

Delaforce Quinta da Corte 1991 New!
£17.99 or £15.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

This has a powerful, intense bouquet of blackcurrant, cherry and cedar. The palate is beautifully balanced and structured with rich, rounded black fruit flavours.

Taylor’s 10 year old Tawny Port
£19.99 or £17.99 when you buy 2 bottles*

Taylor’s Tawny Ports are amongst the very best. Fragrant and nutty with great character and complexity. No need to decant. Can be drunk slightly chilled.

Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2001
£27.00 or £25.00 when you buy 2 bottles*

The best known of Taylor’s properties, this single quinta port is wonderfully concentrated with spicy aromas and well-defined dried fruit flavours redolent of figs, raisins and prunes. Decant before serving.

*All prices valid until 1st February 2010 & Gift packaging available whilst stocks last

20 thoughts on “Master Class: A Question of Port

  1. Very interesting and informative. I have a bottle of Graham’s ’65 Vintage Port with a wax seal. What is its drinkability now or later, and what is the elegant way of breaking the wax? I’ve tried various methods in the past but none has been tidy!
    Ian A

    1. I can’t answer the question about the wax but I can assure you that vintage port will last over 100 years. It was tested by a well known wine bar owner in London (a Master of wine) who celebrated 100 years of the family business with a 100 year old port and declared it good.

      1. I think that SOME vintage ports will be still good (indeed superb) after 100 years. But I also think a lot of others will not.

    2. Ian,
      I had a chat with Simon who wrote this piece about your 1965 port and he recommended drinking it sooner rather than later as it is now classed as fully mature.
      With regards the wax seal… it would appear there is no particularly tidy way of removing it although it serves a very valuable purpose in preserving a moist cork during extended storage. We would recommend using a very sharp knife to very carefully score round the rim of the bottle top and then prize it off.
      Another point to make is, as the corks are denser and narrower in port bottles than other wines and as the shape of the bottle neck is different, it is inadvisable to use a Lever model corkscrew as this can result in cork breakage. We would recommend using a Waiters friend style corkscrew instead – and very slowly!

  2. Ian,

    I am very interested in your post re the wax seal on older vintages. I have some Taylors ’63 which I have had similar issues with. Mind you the last time I opened a bottle was New Year 2000! It was stunning.


  3. I’m very interested to see that single quinta vintage ports don’t improve once bottled. Does that mean that they begin to deteriorate or can they be kept?

  4. Harry,

    Single Quinta vintage ports will also improve in bottle, sometimes for a considerable time. However the main difference between vintage and single quinta vintage ports is that normally (there are always exceptions) single quinta ports are aged at the port house until they consider the wine ready for drinking, whereas Vintage ports are generally sold at a much earlier stage (often through en primeur). Take for example our two Taylors single quinta ports – Vargellas (1998) and Terra Feita (1999). Both of these are deemed good for drinking now, but both I would suggest could be aged for another 10 years safely. But compare this with the nearest declared vintage – Taylors fladgate 2000, which I would certainly not recommend opening yet, probably requiring another 10 years ageing before entering it’s drinking window and then continuing to develop over the next 20 years. Obviously there is no definitive answer as to when to drink any wine, often it’s just a matter of taste. Hope that helps.


  5. I have just inspected a bottle of vintage port Quinta do Noval 1966, bottled 1968,
    (Berry Brothers & Rudd) which has been kept in a wooden box in a wine cupboard in the garage for about 25 years. A syrupy liquid appears to be leaking through the cork and wax.Does this mean something serious has hapened to the contents?
    Should i drink this port as soon as possible?

    1. Your 66 Noval requires re-corking. With a small amount of leakage oxygen cannot enter the bottle and therefore it will not affect the wine although your precious wine is escaping and the leak will get worse with time! If you do not want to re-cork the wine the port is fully mature so you could drink it now. There is a port drinking window, and although it is about personal taste, most ports do begin to lose some intensity after 40 years or so.

  6. I was interested in the comments on single quinta ports; in my experience these age quite well. I personally would rather have a mature SQP from Taylors or Fonseca than a vintage from someone like Sandeman, Messias or Croft. The thing I am yet to understand fully is how a VP is good for a year or two it then seems to close for a decade or more. I love the taste of Taylors 2007 RIGHT NOW! Yet I had a 2000 Ramos Pinto which was totally closed (sort of acidic and very harsh, tempered only with the incredibly strong Spanish cheese Cabrales).

  7. I am surprised that you have not mentioned a Colheita Port which is a Tawny port from a single vintage. Instead of an indication of age (10, 20…) the actual vintage year is mentioned. However, they should not be mistaken with Vintage port as they are all from “undeclared” years. They are considerably cheaper than Vintage Ports and can be just as good especially from the years that nearly made “Vintage” status but not quite. I actually prefer really good Tawny ports to vintage ports and particularly like their nutty character.

  8. Tony – vintage Port isn’t the only wine that “shuts down” like this, many wines do, but you’re right that it is very marked with port. At the tasting of 2007 en primeur this year the equivalent wines from 2003 and 2000 were shown; across the board the 2003s had completely retreated into their shell and were actually not that pleasant to taste, and the 2000s were on the upward curve out of this phase but were still pretty tough.

  9. Ian Arnott

    Are you sure that your Graham`s Vintage Port is 1965? Graham`s did not declare a 1965 but did declare 1963 and 1966 – both classic years. If your port does not have a label but is identified by a name and date on the wax, is it possible that you have misread “1966” for “1965”? Both 1963 and 1966 are still drinking well. When you open the bottle, it would be interesting to know what date is stamped on the cork,

  10. The first step in my academic career, forty years ago, was a Fellowship at King’s College Cambridge, and was also my introduction to fine wines. And in those days the cellars of Cambridge colleges contained amazing treasures bought at quite modest prices before wine became an investment. Sometime in the early 1970s the College bought, quite cheaply, a substantial part, perhaps all, of a pipe of port (a Quinta) that had lain neglected in a Portuguese cellar for a century, and had it bottled. It was completely different from the heavy vintage port that was a regular feature of formal College dinners, pale red in colour with a very delicate nose. Even when first botled, it had to be drunk on the day that it was opened. I used my last bottle of it sometime towards the end of the 1970s, and I recall that it still had some remains of the magic when first opened, but turned to dishwater within an hour. That port was the oldest single-vintage wine that I have ever tasted.

  11. I have a bottle of Adriano Ramos-Pinto Vintage 1991 Porto which I bought for my husband some years ago.

    Can you tell me how long it will keep or is it best being drunk now?

    1. Dear Jackie

      According to my Wine Society vintage chart the 1991 is not yet ready for drinking so you (or your husband) should hold on for another few years.

  12. I have brought a couple of bottles of the Dows 2003 crusted port, Once I have opened this and decanted, how long will it keep? Thanks

  13. Dear Aaron

    Port, like all wines, begins to deteriorate as soon as it is opened. Fortified wines last longer than ordinary wine but I wouldn’t let it hang about more than a few days.

  14. I found a few bottles of port at my mother in law’s over Christmas. One is a Messias 1965. Can you advise when is best to drink it?

    1. Hi Alex,
      Whilst I am not familiar with Porto Messias 1965 after a little bit of research I can see that Caves Messias is a reputable company so I would expect it to be a quality port. As per Peter Davies earlier comment, quality vintage port will last over 100 years… It depends on how you prefer your port – if you like them with a lot of bottle age, ultimately it’s a case of how long can you hold out?!!

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