For many generations vintage port was the preferred tipple of the upper-class Englishman (and woman). It was served in both Great Britain and that nations overseas colonies as a perfect way to end off a dinner experience. After the dessert was served and the cheese board had been put away the gentlemen would retire to suitable room, while the ladies would retire to another to discuss the day’s social events and politics – with a glass of vintage port in hand. For the men, this was often accompanied by cigars. It was this mythos that has today made newcomers to vintage port somewhat hesitant about sampling the delights of what is, after all, a red wine – and should be enjoyed as such.
So what exactly is a vintage port, why did it find such favor with the upper class of English society and what are the misconceptions which still to this day surround this exceptional red wine?
The first misconception about vintage port is that it needs years, perhaps even decades of aging before it reaches its exalted status – today this is not always the case. That may once have been true, but it certainly is not anymore. Decades (even hundreds) of years ago a young vintage port was abrasive – with heavy tannins – without laying down for a number of years it was almost undrinkable, at least for those men in the Britsh studies and clubs where it was largely consumed. However, modern vintage port is a very different animal. Although it may benefit from being set aside for a number of years (5 is usually recommended0 it is by and large ready to drink after only a short time (at least compared to the decades of yesteryears production. It is a fruity, ripe and rich experience which explodes with flavor. That is not to say it will not benefit from aging. There are varieties that experts claim will do better after 20 or even 50 years of aging – those are wines that are truly heirlooms.
The idea that vintage port should even today only be an after dinner treat has begun to erode. As mentioned this is red wine – and wine lovers have begun to accept that there is simply no earthly reason that it should not be enjoyed in the same way that other red wines are enjoyed. Feel free to enjoy vintage port as you prefer. At a restaurant, around a roaring fire, at a picnic or even a barbecue. Do not be intimidated by so-called tradition. In fact, explore the complexity of vintage port by pairing younger and more fruity versions with meals such as a fine steak and a Madagascan Green Pepper sauce. For the older, more mature versions enjoyment can be at its finest when paired with a platter of strong cheese such as Stilton or any other blue cheese. Surprisingly these vintage ports also pair wonderfully with tropical fruit. The combination of a cheese plate and fruit with a port is a wonder.
Do not overthink port and do not neglect to find your own personal approach to this wine – it will reward experimentation – and you do not need a leather chair and a gentleman’s club to get the most out of it.