Serving & Storing Port

More myths and traditions have developed around the drinking and enjoyment of port than probably any other wine. Perhaps this comes from the tradition-loving British that developed it. The most widely-known tradition is that of passing the port. British naval officers meticulously passed the port from "port to port", that is clockwise. Traditionally, the decanter of port is placed in front of the host who then serves the guest to his right and then passes the decanter to the guest on his left. The port is then passed to the left all the way back to the host.

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Another tradition provides for, in the event that the decanter does not come full circle, back to the host, a proper means of getting it there. As it is bad "port-iquette" to ask directly for the decanter, the host instead is to ask the individual closest to the decanter, if he knows the bishop of Norwich or other village in England. The question is not meant to get an answer but action namely the immediate passing of the port. If however, the unfortunate offender should answer the question by saying "No," he should be told that "the bishop is an awfully good fellow, but he never passes the port!"

The custom of "naming the vintage" requires, for most of us, a great deal of luck. As this custom goes, only the host knows what port is in the decanter. Once the port has made a round, the host asks the guests to name the vintage and the shipper. A modest wager may be placed on which vintage and shipper it turns out to be.

Connoisseurs never recork a bottle. The words, "No heel-taps!" exhort another to drink the last of the wine so that a second bottle might be opened. Women almost never drank port. They were expected to drink the lighter Sherry. Although many of these customs are no longer followed, the small rituals are part of the pleasure, and it is good to always keep a few things in mind when serving port.

Port is quite often served too warm 70 degrees and more. This makes the wine too volatile and difficult to taste. It should be served between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius.

Proper Port GlassThe glass should at the minimum be a standard INAO-type tasting glass. However, there are glasses specifically designed for port on the market. It should be filled no more than halfway, so that the wine may show off its aroma and be fully appreciated. With the exception of Vintage, Traditional LBV and possibly Garrafeira, you may open the bottle and enjoy it immediately.

Vintage port requires decanting. Before opening, the port should be stood upright for at least 24 hours up to a week (depending on the age of the port) to allow time for the sediment to settle on the bottom. Pulling the cork is the most difficult part of this process. The older the bottle, the harder it is. The old corks inevitably break up in the neck and fall inside. If this should happen, simply strain the wine when decanting. Usually the funnel (if you happen to be using one) has a wire screen just for this purpose. Otherwise, a piece of muslin or nylon will do the trick. Paper filters are not recommended as they can add flavors to the port that were not intended.

If you are brave and so inclined, you may use the traditional Port tongs. Port TongsThe tongs must be heated until they are red-hot, then clamped around the neck of the bottle below the cork and above the shoulder of the bottle for about 1 to 2 minutes. Then remove the tongs and apply a small wet towel to the same spot. The rapid change in temperature should cause the glass to break cleanly, thus "removing" the cork. From the cork you can verify the authenticity of a vintage port the year and the house will be branded on the cork.

Decanting the port is not difficult. It just requires a steady hand and a good eye. In one continuous motion, slowly pour the wine into a decanter. When the sediment begins to appear in the neck of the bottle, stop pouring and discard the rest of the port. It is helpful to use a funnel since the sediment (crust) can be easily seen on the its sides. If you don't have a funnel you might try placing a candle or a flashlight under the neck of the of the bottle to illuminate the sediment as it comes into the neck.

Other than white port which is most always served chilled as an apéritif, port is traditionally served at the end of a meal, for port creates it own leisurely pace. It has a warm, calming effect. It has been called the "wine of philosophy." This velvet-rich wine is not for fast drinking, but demands contemplative sips that stimulate great conversation among a company of friends.

Port is traditionally served with Stilton cheese. Stilton and other blue cheeses set up a counterpoint of complementary textures and flavors, but cheeses like Cheddar and Glouster are also good. In addition, walnuts, chestnuts, cashews, and hazelnuts help bring out the best in port. Many variations on this theme are worth trying. Desserts based on strawberries, raspberries, cherries, currants or similarly full-flavored fruits, are a natural ally of port.

Port should be treated as with other fine wines. The bottles should be stored at 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and at 65% humidity and on their sides so the cork doesn't dry out. This also aids in the development of the crust. Most vintage port bottles have a white mark painted on the side. This mark should be kept facing up. If you should have to move the bottle, you can then return it to the same position.