The Lifecycle of Vintage Port in Bottle

The life cycle of vintage port, ageing in bottle for many years, is frequently likened to the life cycle of humans – generally an engaging childhood is followed by a possibly awkward adolescence and then years of maturity, when the wine becomes more complex, interesting and rewarding.

Whilst this trajectory is typical, it is certainly not an iron-clad rule for port, any more than for people, as every vintage is different and you cannot anticipate exactly how it will develop. Bear in mind as well, proper storage makes a difference – if the wine has been stored where it has experienced rapid temperature swings, or been consistently exposed to strong light, that can adversely affect the character and life of the wine.

So what should you expect from your properly-stored bottles of vintage port over their lifetime? Here are some very broad guidelines.

As a rule, young vintage port is going to be robust – very full flavoured, and dominated by red and black berry fruit flavours. Depending on the character of the particular vintage year, and the typical profile of a given brand or quinta, the flavours may be very fresh or more jammy, and there may be aromas or flavours of spices, flowers or herbs. But the overriding impression will nearly always be robustness and fruit.

At this point in time (writing in 2011), vintage ports from the widely declared 2003 and 2007 will be drinking like this.

Next comes that awkward adolescence. As with children, it can happen suddenly at any time, or maybe hardly at all, but for port, the period from around 8 to 10 years old up until 15 or 16 years, can be uncertain. What happens? The wine becomes, as Charles put it, neither one thing nor another. The vibrant fresh fruit character begins to subside, but no clear new flavours have arisen yet to take their place. There may be little or no aroma, or the aromas may seem to be battling, just not playing nicely together during this phase!

At this time, some of the 2000’s may be entering this phase, and we would suggest holding off on opening those and any late-90’s bottles. If you have a chance to taste these wines at a show or wine-shop tasting, by all means try them and judge for yourself the state of the wine at this point – pleasant surprises cannot be ruled out! But if you only have one precious bottle, holding it a little longer will certainly not hurt the wine, and will more certainly reward you.

By their late teens, the flavours and aromas of the port will have got themselves sorted out. The fruit flavours will have matured and stepped back to make room for other kinds of flavours to come to the fore. Dried fruits, particularly figs, is a typical tasting note for a mature port, cherry and black cherry flavours may come forward, marzipan, pepper and spice notes as well.

The 1994s are emerging from their dumb phase and are beginning to show very well now, as are the 91’s and all the wines from the 1980’s.

From that point until the wine is around 30 to 40 years old, the complexity builds, and the wine is likely to develop additional aromas of honey and caramel, the marzipan may become more distinct, and you may even catch a whiff of tea or cigar box.

Charles’s favourite era is around 25 to 30 years of age, when you have a wonderful balance of fruit and secondary flavours, and he said wines from the 1980’s are showing beautifully now.

Beyond 40 or 50 years, again the comparison can be made with people – the best will age gracefully. Ports will gain complexity, elegance and delicacy. The flavours will not change or concentrate so much as lengthen – very often the finish on a really fine old port is just incredibly persistent.

The 1945 vintage was cited by Charles as an example of this kind of quality. But interestingly, he emphasised that there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – some kind of competition to see how long port (or any wine) can last. Only perhaps one in 15 vintages is going to have the character to make really pleasurable drinking beyond 50 years of age.

For the specialist, the fanatic or the winemaker, it is interesting to taste old wines as an academic exercise, and we still have 19th and early 20th century wines in our Lodge which are tasted on a regular basis for just this reason.

But the consumer looking to enjoy a fine port, showing well, should focus on wines younger than 8 or 10 years if he or she enjoys full fruit flavours, or hold the wines until their late teens to 30’s if they enjoy the complexity of secondary aromas and flavours coming into play. By all means, if you have the opportunity to taste vintage ports 40 or 50 years of age or older, do! It will be rewarding and educational – but the chances are the flavours will be more delicate and elegant than you might expect from vintage port.



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