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What are the best Vintages in perfect shape to drink now?

Most Vintage Ports enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year on, eventually reaching their peak later. 1977, one of the best Vintages of the second half of the 20th century, is possibly one of the most interesting options that comes to mind and its structure and concentration have been widely regarded as unparalleled. Despite this, you can't go far wrong with any of the 1980s trio: the 1980, 1983 or 1985. In addition, the 1994 Vintage is also an outstanding choice – the year produced monumental wines with rich fruit character and fantastic structure. They are beginning to drink very well now, but will continue to develop and improve for decades. Currently, the youngest 'declared' Vintages falling into that category are the 1997 and the 2000. The 1997s are known for their supreme elegance, floral aromas and seductive, silky palate. The 2000s, which were born in a year of very low yields, are remarkable for their beautiful black fruit flavours with hints of liquorice and kirsch; full, generous and well-rounded ripe fruit helps to create layers of complexity.

How long can you keep a bottle of Crusted port?

Most Crusted Ports benefit from 5 to 7 years of ageing in the bottle after being released, provided they’re kept in good conditions (laying down, constant cool temperature, away from strong light). It is difficult to say how long they can be stored as different wines may have different development paths. However, you probably shouldn’t keep it for more than 15 – 20 years (after the year of bottling shown on the label).

Why do some Vintage Ports change colours faster than others?

Within the range of Vintage Ports there are some that inevitably have greater ageing capability than others. Each year has different characteristics of structure, concentration, acidity and phenolic compounds. In addition, different Vintage Ports are produced using different grape varieties with different levels of concentration. All of these factors can determine the rate of colour change. In addition, if a bottle of Vintage Port is not stored in the ideal conditions of temperature, humidity, light and position (lying on its side), the pigmentation of the wine can change faster than it normally would.

Can Colheita stock be used for normal age – statement – tawnies or are they separate?

Yes, they can. It is up to the winemaker to make the decision whether to use Colheita stock in a blend or bottle it as a 'single harvest' Tawny Port. Usually Colheitas are released when a specific year's Tawny Ports evolve in an outstanding way. The best years are monitored closely and are kept apart to enable them to be bottled as a premium Colheita (Single Harvest Tawny) in small quantities. However, the winemaker can at any point choose to blend that stock into a 10, 20, 30 or 40 Year Old Tawny Port.

How much difference is there from batch to batch in blended tawnies?

With blended Tawny Ports (10 Year Olds, 20 Year Olds, etc) the tasting room team are trying to achieve a consistent house style. The fact that they can use wines from different years, so long as the average is at least the age of the category communicated on the label, as well as different grape varieties, gives them lots of options to maintain that Port house's characteristics. In addition, different Port houses have different ageing techniques (type and size of barrels, etc). By staying true to these, they are able to achieve consistent characteristics from year to year with their Tawny blends.

I have a 1989 white port botted in 2018. Will it last in the bottle or should we drink it?

Barrel-aged Ports - be they Aged Whites or Aged Tawnies - are not intended for bottle maturation and should be drunk relatively quickly once bottled. Whites do not have the structure or tannins needed for a long ageing in the bottle. However, given your 1989 was bottled in 2018, it will retain its quality for a few years. Nevertheless, we recommend you drink it relatively soon! Only a few Port styles (Vintage, Crusted Ports or traditional LBVs) have the potential to age in the bottle as they are not filtered and will continue to improve and evolve as they slowly age in contact with the sediment.

How is it the case that even during decades in barrels, the % of alcohol stays the same?

Interestingly, the rate of micro-oxidation of the Port through the barrel reduces the volume of water and alcohol in roughly equal proportions. With very old Aged Tawny Ports, a slight alcohol correction is sometimes needed and this is done by adding wine from another barrel, to achieve the regulated alcohol level. A related point is that Tawny Ports lose considerable volume through evaporation (up to 20% in the first 10 years in barrel). The winemakers top up this volume with wine from the same year (or a similar year, in the case of the blended Tawnies). The Port Wine Institute has clear rules that all Port houses must follow when topping up. According to the most recent data (2019) released by IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto), there is a total of 43.608 hectares of vineyard in the Douro Valley, from which 42.422 ha are within the "Região Demarcada do Douro" (demarcated region) legal frame.

What is the «Douro bake» and how can I notice it?

'Douro Bake' is a term used to describe the aroma and taste profile that Ports aged in the Douro Valley can develop. The climate in the Douro is hotter and drier than on the Atlantic coast, and this means higher evaporation and consequently more concentrated wines. These can sometimes taste richer, more 'baked' compared to ports aged in the cooler conditions of the Gaia lodges. It’s not a flaw or defect (unless its effects are excessive). Rather it is the result of different ageing conditions, which can develop a 'nose' and flavours that some may appreciate. Some Ports with Douro bake can, however, lack some freshness and balance.

What is the youngest Vintage you feel has just entered its prime drinking window?

Generally speaking, most Vintage Ports enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year and it is important to stress that this is when they begin to enter their prime — but by no means reach their peak. Most Vintage Ports from classic declarations will remain at their peak for extensive periods and that peak may only be reached when they are between 25 and 30 years old. Currently, the youngest ('declared') Vintages falling into that category are the 1997 and the 2000. If one brings Single Quinta Vintage Ports into this equation then younger wines, such as the 2004, 2006 and 2008 are worthy candidates (Single Quinta Vintages are normally ready to drink sooner than generally declared — 'classic' — Vintage Ports). Enjoy the 1997s for their supreme elegance, floral aromas and seductive, silky palate. The 2000s were born in a year of very low yields so here you will have beautiful black fruit flavours, with hints of liquorice and kirsch — full and generous, albeit well-rounded ripe fruit offering layers of complexity.

A 20 YO tawny is stored for 20 years. Is it still a 20 YO?

Tawny ports are wood-aged ports and once bottled they are ready to be consumed and further ageing potential is limited. All their ageing and development has occurred in seasoned oak casks and, as such, they are not meant to be aged further. For a twenty-year-old tawny we recommend that the port be consumed within two years of bottling. It will remain in good condition for some years longer but it won't have the balance, elegance and freshness that a recently bottled 20-year-old tawny displays. Technically a 20 Year-Old Tawny will still be a 20YO even twenty years after it was bottled, but it won't be the same wine.

Why do some Vintage ports become volatile in the bottle?

All wines - Ports included - have volatile flavour compounds and naturally occurring volatile acids, principally acetic acid. It is when the latter rises to unacceptably high levels that the wine is said to be volatile (and therefore unpleasant or even undrinkable). A wine can become excessively volatile if poorly stored, under higher (and/or inconstant) temperatures. This sometimes causes the cork to dry, allowing air to enter the bottle. The resulting exposure to air, if unchecked, will spoil the wine.

40 YO tawny: is it a minimum or average 40 YO?

Aged tawnies with an indication of age of 10, 20 and 30 years are blended wines, made up of high quality production from different harvests and aged solely in seasoned oak casks. The age indication of 10, 20 or 30 years refers to the average age of the wine in the bottle and in almost every case the wine is actually a fraction older than indicated, as port producers err on the side of caution by ensuring that the average age of the wine is actually a little above the age shown on the label. With 40 year old tawnies, the Port Wine Institute (IVDP) lays down more specific regulations, requiring that the youngest wine in the blend is at least 40 years old. That's why on the label of a 40 year old tawny you will often see the term "More than" preceding "40 Years of Age”.

How old should a bottle of port be to use port tongs to open it?

Port tongs are used to open old to very old Vintage Port bottles. Using this device, heated to a very at extremely high (near to red hot) temperature and then tightening it around the bottle neck (below the level of the cork) will create a neat crack in the glass (briefly apply a wet cloth around the neck to ensure a clean, neat crack). The idea is to bypass the cork, which may not be easy to remove in bottles that are more than 40 to 50 years old. Even with younger Vintages, if the cork shows signs of crumbling (which can happen if the port hasn't been stored in the best conditions), there is no reason why you shouldn't use tongs. Take special care not to burn yourself!

Can tawny port improve in the bottle?

Although most wines benefit (to differing extents) from bottle ageing, filtered ports, including Tawnies, are not designed to age in the bottle. After being matured in wood, Tawnies are fined and filtered making them ready to enjoy immediately but limiting their further potential for ageing. As their development has already occurred in seasoned oak casks, they are not meant to age any longer and we recommend they are enjoyed within two years of bottling.

How do you decide if a single harvest becomes a Vintage or a Colheita?

During the harvest, the winemaker will begin to build a picture of the characteristics of the year and the quality potential of the wines. He or she will begin to screen and grade the wines, earmarking specific batches to be made into the various categories of port. The wines will be regularly assessed to ascertain which lots are better suited to age in bottle (Vintage) and which will age and develop to advantage in wood (Single Harvest). After the wines' first two winters, a decision is made regarding the declaration of a Vintage and if this goes ahead, some of the finest lots are bottled as Vintage Port. Other high quality wines, deemed to be best suited to age in wood, will become Single Harvest Tawnies or 'Colheitas'.

Which category of white is best for port & tonic?

It's very much a matter of personal taste, some prefer the standard White Port (at the sweeter end of the taste spectrum), while others prefer the Dry White Port (or even the extra dry white). Both styles are delicious aperitifs and make for one of the most refreshing summer long drinks that you can enjoy, served with tonic water, poured over cubes of ice and garnished with a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint leaf. As the tonic water has quite a sharp taste, some argue that the sweeter white port acts as a counter to this, bringing a more balanced taste to the drink which can (for some) be a tad on the bitter side. Ideally, experiment with both and decide for yourself which style you think is most appropriate.

What does it mean when the seal gets brown and crusty on an old port?

Ideally, we would see a picture of the bottle in question to give you an accurate answer. From your description though, it does appear that you have a leaking bottle, and if that is indeed the case we strongly advise you to open it and drink the contents as soon as possible. By keeping it further, the bottle may continue to leak, and may also be letting in air, which will adversely affect the wine. If in doubt, it's always better to open the bottle and hope for the best. Quite often, the contents are still very drinkable. Port is one of the most forgiving wines there is. Remember that Vintage Port is best consumed within two or three days after uncorking (if it is a Vintage Port you are referring to).

When are old casks sold (i.e. whiskey producers) and why are they at the end of their life?

There is a greater demand from Whiskey producers for seasoned ('old') port casks than port producers are willing to part with. They provide Malt Whiskeys with wonderful aromas, flavours and colour. The tawny family of ports (wines aged in wood which take on a tawny colour) are aged in seasoned oak casks (called 'pipes' in the port trade) for several decades and the older the wood the better, because well-seasoned wood gradually and slowly imparts complex aromas and flavours to the maturing wine. This is why port producers still rely heavily on the art of cooperage to maintain and repair oak casks for as long as possible. The average age of a seasoned oak cask used for ageing premium port ranges from 70 to 90 years and they are only at the end of their life (often over a century old) when it is no longer feasible to maintain them.

Does a young Vintage benefit from opening a few hours before?

Vintage Port is a very complex wine, usually with great concentration of aromas and layers of flavours. Therefore, all vintages - even young ones - benefit from some aeration serving. In the case of a young Vintage Port - say younger than 10 years of age - decanting it a couple of hours to allow it to breath is sufficient. Some older Vintage Ports, say from 20 to 30 years (and more) benefit by being decanted several hours before serving to fully release and liberate the incredible aromas and flavours that have been locked inside the bottle for decades. 

How long can a bottle of LBV stay open?

There are two kinds of Late Bottled Vintage Ports: Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): the majority of LBVs available in the high street are wines that are aged solely in wood, primarily large oak vats, and bottled between their fourth and sixth year (hence the term 'late bottled', because declared Vintage Ports are bottled in their second year). These LBVs are filtered prior to bottling, which makes them very easy to serve as no decanting is necessary. Because they have been aged in wood, they have had some contact with oxygen, and once open, will remain in good condition for up to six weeks, although we recommend that to enjoy at its best, the wine should be consumed within a month.  Traditional LBV: Some producers still make traditional LBV, meaning wines that are bottled unfiltered, after four rather than five or six years. After bottling, these LBVs will age for at least a further four years (longer is usual) in bottle before being offered for sale. They will show on the label the term 'unfiltered' or 'bottle-matured' (or both). The wine has to be decanted and like a declared Vintage Port, it should be consumed within two to three days.

Is Tawny blended to taste the same?

Yes and no (!?) — depending on the category. Tawny Ports with an age indication — 10, 20, 30 and 40-Year-Old —, are blends of wines from different harvests, whose average age is shown on the label (10, 20, 30 or 40 years). These are indeed blended following a house style so that, over time, a customer can always return to his/her favourite old tawny port in the knowledge that it will have the same, constant profile. The other old tawny category — aged tawnies from a single year — are quite the opposite. These are the Colheita (Portuguese for 'harvest') ports, also known as Single Harvest Tawny, and are wines from a single year, aged in oak casks for prolonged periods and not blended with wines of other years. Therefore, they reflect the characteristics of the year in which they were made, rather than being an expression of the house style. These wine are unique, in that once the batch is bottled the wine will never quite be replicated.

What is the effect of house temperatures (+/- 27ºC) on wines designed to age in the bottle?

Port, as any other fine wine, should ideally be stored somewhere with a cool and constant temperature, preferably no higher than 18ºC / 64.4ºF — and away from sunlight. In particular, wines that are designed for prolonged ageing in bottle, such as Vintage Ports, should be stored at a stable temperature, at or around 15ºC / 59ºF. Temperature fluctuations are just as bad for wines as storage under relatively high temperatures, so you should look to avoid pronounced and constant temperature swings, just as much as high storage temperatures. Higher temperatures will accelerate and compromise the ageing process and knock the wines off balance. Wines stored under such conditions may well not fulfil their full potential and may taste 'cooked', 'flat' and unbalanced.

What is the best book you recommend to learn about port?

The best introduction to port (and the Douro region), and almost certainly the most widely available is: - PORT AND THE DOURO by Richard Mayson. Other worthy reads on your way to becoming #schoolofportgeeks, are: - 'Rich, Rare and Red', by Ben Howkins - 'The Port Companion', by Godfrey Spence. For Portuguese readers: - História do Douro e do Vinho do Porto  (Gaspar Martins Pereira) - Ilha de Xisto: Guia do Douro e do Vinho do Porto (Manuel Carvalho) - DOURO, Rio, Gente e Vinhp (António Barreto)

What is the impact of bottle size for ageing Vintage?

Standard (75cl) and larger bottle formats (Magnums: 1.5 litre) are better suited for Vintage Ports because they favour slower, more subtle wine ageing. Smaller bottles (such as halves of 37.5cl) normally speed up wine ageing, mainly because they have more oxygen per centilitre of wine than larger bottle formats. This means a higher proportion of the wine is in contact with oxygen (present in the space in a stoppered wine not occupied by the wine itself), which will accelerate the ageing process. Apart from this, as Vintage Port is an unfiltered bottle-matured wine, having a greater volume for the precipitation of sediments may provide additional benefits for the wine's development. This is one of the reasons why half bottles of Vintage Port aren't more widely available. Generally speaking, standard-sized and larger bottles are better for long-term bottle ageing. It is often the case that Magnums of Vintage Port reveal even greater complexity and finesse than a standard bottle from the same vintage year. But, as with any fine wine, this will also depend on how well the bottle has been stored.

Why do filtered ports age and unfiltered don't?

Well, it's actually the exact opposite! Although bottle stabilisation may be beneficial for most mainstream wines (intended to be consumed quite young), some of the finest quality ports (as with virtually all fine wines) require long-term bottle-ageing to develop their full potential. These wines (principally Vintage Ports) are intentionally bottled unfiltered to retain all the phenolics, natural acids and flavour precursors, in short, many of the necessary ingredients required for prolonged bottle-ageing.  With no contact with the oxygen, this ageing enhances the slow formation of aggregates which results in the settling of sediment in the bottle. Therefore, the wine will develop in contact with its own sediment through a process called reduction. Filtered ports, on the other hand, age through a slow micro oxidation process. This ageing takes place in wooden casks or vats prior to bottling — before which the wines are filtered and fined, rendering them ready to drink, but removing any particular benefit or potential for further ageing in the bottle.

Can LBVs age?

Yes, although it depends on the type of Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). There are two types: - Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): the majority of LBVs available in the high street are wines that are aged solely in wood, primarily large oak vats, and bottled between their fourth and sixth year (hence the term 'late bottled', because declared Vintage Ports are bottled in their second year). These LBVs are filtered prior to bottling, which makes them very easy to serve as no decanting is necessary; this type of LBV is not intended for long-term ageing, once it's been bottled, it's ready to drink and shouldn't be kept for longer than five or six years. - Traditional LBV: Some producers still make traditional LBV, meaning wines that are bottled unfiltered, after four rather than five or six years. After bottling, these LBVs will age for at least a further four years (longer is usual) in bottle before being offered for sale. They will show on the label the term 'unfiltered' or 'bottle-matured' (or both). This type of LBV has the potential for a long bottle ageing, provided good conditions are assured (constant cool temperature, horizontal position, location away from sunlight). These LBVs can age up to 20 or more years.

Any specific conditions under which port must be during exportation?

First and foremost, port must be bottled at source in Portugal, so no other type of container — other than the original bottle and corresponding transport case — is allowed for port destined for export (and indeed, for domestic shipment in Portugal as well). All ports have to be previously certified by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP), which approves ports' quality, classifications, labels and other elements, and issues the guarantee seal for each individual bottle. During transport, freight companies must ensure stable temperatures during transportation and during temporary storage — before and after the transportation itself.

School of Port is an educational initiative from Symington Family Estates, premium port producers in the Douro for five generations since 1882.

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