Keeping Port - pushing the limits
Few wine-related images are much more enduring than the sparkling glass decanter half-full of Port or Sherry. This sweet, strong wine would customarily be opened for Christmas and then left sitting on the sideboard for occasional celebratory tastes at Easter, the Fourth of July (or Queen's Birthday) until the last dank, oxidized dregs finally go down the hatch at Thanksgiving.
You don't have to be much of an expert to see the problem here: Good wine simply doesn't keep for long in an open bottle, where it deteriorates quickly upon exposure to air.
Because they're sweet and fortified to unusual alcoholic strength with a dose of brandy, Port and similar dessert wines do survive longer after opening than everyday table wines; but their useful life after opening should be measured in weeks, not months or years.
But just how long can you go? You'll recall that I opened a bottle of Osborne 2000 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port back in October, then re-tasted it a few days later and found to my pleased surprise that it was still going strong, perhaps a bit more mellow and smooth than it had been upon opening.
Last night, six weeks later, I uncorked it again. Did it survive?
Well ... sort of. It's definitely showing some signs of deterioration now - its inky, blackish-purple color shows some haze, and a telltale walnutty, Sherrylike aroma betrays increasing oxidation. Yet somewhat to my surprise, the wine is still palatable. On the nose, simple dark stone fruit, plums and prunes remain dominant, with the Sherry character as a back note, secondary to the fruit. In the mouth, the first taste seems softer, smoother, sweeter, perhaps a little more simple than when the wine was first opened. But still, as the wine crosses the palate there's plenty of acidity and a distinct touch of licorice. Comparing notes with my Oct. 22 tasting, I'm more surprised by the similarity than the difference. The original subtle hint of hazelnut has moved over to a more apparent, darker walnut character, and the wine's a bit softer and may have shed some of its complexity; but to be frank, this modest LBV wasn't all that complex to begin with.
Do I recommend keeping Port in an open bottle or decanter for six weeks or longer? Well, no. The wine has changed, and from a strict analytical standpoint, not for the better. But it's certainly still drinkable, even to a critical wine "geek."
Nor would I try this with an expensive true Vintage Port: There, you're paying the price for subtle complexity, and those ethereal nuances will be the first to disappear when the invevitble deterioration begins. Enjoy it within the first week, and share it with friends if you need assistance.
On the other hand, fortified wines in naturally oxidized styles could last even longer than this LBV. Consider sweeter Madeira (Malmsey or Boal), Sicilian Marsala, or the more sweet and full-bodied Sherries, from Oloroso upward; or tawny Port, although again here I'd stick with the more modest types rather than trying to keep a pricey, complex 30-year Tawny around for months.
Still, the longevity of this simple Port suggests that for fortified wines at least, it's safe to challenge the conventional wine-geek wisdom, at least a little. If your primary interest is simply enjoying a glass of Port every now and then, there's certainly no reason not to buy a bottle of modest Port, sweet Sherry, Marsala or Madeira and keep it around, taking a small glass from time to time when you're in the mood.
I'd like to hear your experiences, for better or worse, with keeping fortified dessert wines longer than the usual rules allow. Please feel free to post your comments here as a response to this topic.
<center>Subscribe to The 30 Second Wine Advisor