How to Serve Port

By Nick Marshall

With the mystique and tradition surrounding port, some find it an intimidating drink to serve. But this wine should be savored, and hosts should focus on the rules that enhance its enjoyment rather than the distracting quirks that largely hail from an era when only men would be invited to enjoy a glass.


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Decanting opens up certain ports and allows them to breathe and, when done properly, eliminates any sediment at the bottom of the bottle. While late-bottled vintage and tawny ports, which mature in oak casks, can be served straight from the bottle, vintage ports that throw down sediment as they mature need decanting. First, stand up the bottle for up to a day to ease the sediment to the base; then draw out the cork slowly with a corkscrew. If the bottle has a white storage mark on it, hold it with this mark on top and pour slowly and steadily into a clean decanter. Since many vintage ports have natural corks that disintegrate easily, a funnel with a muslin or mesh filter is a useful gadget to eliminate both cork and sediment.



For the right balance of tannins and aroma, serve port at temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and certainly no more than 70 degrees, at which point the aromas become volatile and the tasting experience impaired. White port, on the other hand, should be served chilled, although, in this case, as a light, refreshing aperitif. Once open, vintage ports need to be consumed within a day or two, something which is not usually a challenge for the more illustrious vintages. Tawny or late-bottle vintages, however, keep longer, with a shelf life similar to that of red wine.



Traditionally, port glasses are smaller than wine glasses, usually 8½ ounces, because the serving measure is less. Some aficionados, however, consider the port glass a distracting oddity that stifles the circulation of port's aroma, and they suggest, instead, a standard white wine glass to allow the port to breathe. In both cases, the glass should not be filled more than halfway for the best opportunity to savor the bouquet. For the decanter, a flat-based "ship's" or "captain's" decanter evokes the time when port was the standard tipple of the Royal Navy. An alternative decanter, unique to port, is the round-bottomed hoggit decanter, which rests upright only in its own wooden base, ensuring that the bottle circulates freely around the table.



Port is traditionally served at the end of a dinner, with guests circulating the decanter around the table and serving themselves. Here again, though, rules exist. Most importantly, port should always be passed to the left, starting from the person to the right of the host. Each guest should receive the bottle, serve the person to the right if necessary, before topping up and sending the decanter clockwise. It is considered bad manners both to hold up the decanter's progress and to ask for the bottle. In the most traditional settings, a guest waiting for the bottle will ask the culprit, "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" in reference to a bishop with a habit of falling asleep at the table while in possession of the decanter. Outside the UK, though, the question might be met with mild befuddlement.