I’m a bit of a closet Port wine snob. I got my first education in this elixir back in 1990 when I visited Porto in Portugal, and sampled Port wine for the first time. Could never afford it until the late 1990s though, when I started buying a bottle here and there of vintage years. Now my catalog is over 100 bottles.
But this isn’t about me and my love for Port and how much I’ve collected. It’s about a pet peeve of mine — Port wine sales (by the glass) in restaurants.
To me, it’s the single worst value item found on a restaurant (or bar’s) menu. Sure they may be others that are worse (some cognacs for example) but most restaurants have at least one or two Port wine selections on their menu, and my experience has been that they treat these bottles with absolutely zero respect (with some exceptions of course).
Port wine isn’t cheap. Well, 10 year old Tawnys might be inexpensive, some Late Bottle Vintages may be inexpensive, but they still aren’t cheap, with even these styles running at $15-$25 for a retail, consumer-bought bottle from the quality Port houses.
Port wine, on the other hand, can be expensive. A properly handled vintage, from a stellar vintage year can cost you $125 or more on the auction market, if it is bought within its prime (hint: prime for a quality Port vintage is 20 years after it was bottled and sold!). Even if you buy a vintage Port the year the bottle is released, they run from $25 or so (for so-so vintage years) up to $50, $75 a bottle or more for super star vintage years (like the 1994s, or 2000s). And after you bought it, you have to safely store it and tend to it for another 15 or so years before it’s ready to drink!
A typical quality restaurant has 3 or 4 Port wine selections on their menu — a specific Vintage year, (always still to young and usually not a stellar vintage year, like 2002s, 2005s, 2005s right now), a Late Bottled Vintage -LBV- (these are wines the vintners themselves have aged in steel and wood to hasten the aging on the fortified wine), typically right now 2007s, 2008s are around; and a Tawny (usually a 10 year Tawny, but sometimes a 20 year, or even a 30 year).
And typically, in Canadian restaurants at least, these ports are served in 2oz (or 3oz) servings, and the prices are quite high: LBVs can be $8–12 per serving, 10yr Tawnys are $8–11, and Vintages are as much as $20 or more per serving in most restaurants.
The thing is, Port, like any wine or spirit under 35%, doesn’t like oxygen much. And Port needs — damnit, requires — being served at proper serving temperatures.
Vintages need breathing time after opening. I recently opened a 1994 and 2000 to compare and contrast; the 94 was amazing out of the bottle, but even better half a day later. The 2000 was sharp and young at bottle opening, but after a full 24 hours in a decanter, really opened up, mellowed out, and became complex. Vintage Port should be served at the same temprature as a quality red wine — at around 12–14c.
Vintages also have a ‘shelf life’ for lack of a better term, once opened. Most peak 24h after opening and with proper (12c) storage and removal of as much air (oxygen) as possible while storing, they’ll fade gracefully over a 2–4 day period.
Tawnys are a bit more robust in terms of air spoilage, but also need to be served (and stored) at colder temperatures; as low as 8c (though 10c seems to be favoured by many. Tawnys also last longer in after-opened storage; I’d say as much as a week for some of the 20yr variants I’ve had, up to 5 days for the 10yrs, and also about 5–6 days for the 30yr variants.
LBVs are like Vintages (they benefit from a breathing period) but fade faster than Vintages do. My taste buds say 3 days max and they’re gone.
How Many Restaurants Do It
So I’ve established that Ports are a) expensive, b) require proper serving (and storage) temperatures, c) can fade even under the most optimal storage after opening.
I used to order Port with almost every meal I had at finer dining establishments, and even those a little below finer dining. I pretty much stopped ordering Port in restaurants about five years ago because, with very, very few exceptions, this is what I got:
Port wine served at room (18–20c) temperatures, extremely flat and dead. For up to $20+ a glass. Or worse, Tawny Port served the same. (It takes a lot longer for Tawny to fade).
I know why these Ports are flat and dead; they’re so expensive, few people buy them; many restaurants can’t sell enough to “turn over” a bottle every day or two.
But there’s absolutely no excuse for a fine dining establishment to not be serving a specific Port at its best temperature (or storing them at proper temperatures). I cannot tell you how many times I’ve ordered a known Vintage Port, only to spy the bartender across the room reach up onto a red wine shelf and pull the opened bottle down, and pour the glass. This isn’t some $7 bottle of Aussie mass marketed plonk; this is, in many cases, a $75 (retail) or more bottle being abused.
I blame several factors here. I blame first and foremost ignorance on the bartending (and management staff) for how the bottles are treated. I blame maximizing profits for prolonging a spirit that has gone flat and dead and should have been dumped out. I blame the buying public too, who just accept the Port they’re served as beng “just how it is”, and letting restaurateurs get away with this heresy for far too long.
It gets worse. I think I know what Port tastes like. I know what happens to it when it oxidizes. I used to ask bartenders “will you be opening a fresh bottle, or how long has that bottle been opened?” Fresh bottle, I’ll have if its a LBV or a Tawny (not a Vintage though, remember, they need to breathe for hours!). But I no longer trust bartenders, servers or the management when I ask “how long has the bottle been opened?”. When I used to ask this, about 75% of the time I’d get something like “less than a day” or “only a day” or “only a day or so”. And in about 75–85% of those times where I did order a glass based on their stated age, my taste buds told me differently — they lied. They served me from a bottle that’s been open for a week, or longer, stored (and served) at the wrong temperature.
It’s just not worth it to order Port wine at restaurants. While I’m sure some actually do put in the time, care, attention (and yes, accept spoilage is part of the cost), my experience has been that most — even some of the top restaurants in Vancouver — do not.
PS. If you’re a true friend of mine, and want to taste some really good Port one day, I’m always down with opening a bottle with friends. That is why I bought them.