Port Wine | The Port Society
The Port Society | Fine Port

The gentle art of decanting port.  By Tom Archer

1) Why decant port?

Decanting serves two purposes. Firstly, to separate wine from sediment that has formed in the bottle, and secondly, to aerate wine that has lain in a bottle for a very long time.
Douro Port Wine
Very young ports do not benefit greatly from decanting, and it is common practice amongst the producers to fill glasses straight from the bottle when showing their new wines. However, old wines, including those that were filtered prior to bottling, but were bottled many years ago, are best decanted.

A decanter also shows off a wine, liberating it from the gloom of its black glass bottle, so it is not uncommon for port lovers to decant every bottle they open.

2) Preparing to decant

Sediment varies both in quantity and consistency, in ways that are hard to explain or predict. Sometimes the sediment sticks to the bottle in a solid mass; sometimes it forms into gritty lumps, and sometimes it is a multitude of fine particles that can cloud the wine with the least disturbance!

Thus it is that some bottles can be decanted cleanly without any preparation, while others need to be stood upright for a few days for the wine to fully clear.  As a rule of thumb, 24hrs settling time is usually sufficient.

After selecting your bottle, remove the capsule and clean the top of the bottle, then stand it upright for a day. Always take care to keep port “cellar cool”, both before and after decanting.

3) EquipmentFine Vintage Port

A glass decanter with stopper

These are available from good glassware stores, but tend to be expensive to buy new. Decanters are often offered on eBay, and often go for a song.  Be sure your decanter will hold a full 75cl bottle.

A decanting funnel
Decanting Funnel  Decanting Funnel
Not so easy to find, these can be bought in the UK from Wineware - www.wineware.co.uk; a very useful online source for equipment and glassware.

Port Corkscrew
Young bottles of vintage port can have very tight corks that require a levered corkscrew to remove, but older bottles are best tackled with a traditional T-handle type that has an open spiral.


Rather too much fuss is made about these.  I personally use the basic Riedel red wine glass for reds, whites and ports alike.

4) Preparing the decanter

Soaps and detergents are best avoided when cleaning the inside of a decanter, as they are remarkably persistent chemicals that can leave traces after repeated rinsing.

Before using a decanter, rinse the inside with tap water, and then put a drop of ruby port inside to flush out the residue of water and “prime” the glass. Tip this down the sink, and you are ready to go.

If the inside of the decanter is badly stained, half fill the decanter with water and add a handful of small stainless steel ball bearings. Swirling the water and bearings is effective at removing stains and lime scale. Suitable bearings are marketed by Riedel, complete with a neat little pot in which to keep them!

5) Drawing the cork

Take great care to avoid shaking or jolting the bottle when removing the cork.

Have no fear of letting the corkscrew go right through the cork; it is very common for old port corks to break as they are removed, so getting as much out as possible at the first attempt is generally the order of the day.

Don’t feel you’ve failed if half the cork ends up inside the bottle; it happens to us all, and doesn’t do any harm!

6) Decanting

Put your funnel in the neck of the decanter. If it fits too well, it can cause an airlock, making the decanting process very slow.  If this happens, put a little piece of string or ribbon over the lip of the decanter, so the air can escape as the wine goes in.

If your funnel does not have a gauze, you will need to tuck a piece of clean cheesecloth into the funnel to act as a filter.

Now make sure you will not be disturbed for a couple of minutes; phones and doorbells must be ignored!

Pick the bottle up with both hands, and steadily pour the contents into the funnel in a single action; under no circumstances must you right the bottle mid way through!

As you approach the end of the process, look very closely at the wine leaving the bottle, and watch for the sediment starting to appear; it can be very difficult to spot this sometimes on young dark wines, in which event, leave about a mouthful in the bottle.

After decanting, put the stopper back in the decanter, and rinse the funnel and filter.

7) Decanting time

As the wine is decanted, oxygen from the air dissolves into the fluid. This slowly reacts with the wine, making it smoother and more integrated.  The speed at which this happens varies with different wines and different vintages, and the time taken for a wine to reach its peak can sometimes be two days or more.

Wines from vintages such as 1970 and 1977 often need a lot of time, while wines from 1975 generally need very little.

For older top vintages like 1955 and 1963, decanting in the morning for drinking in the evening generally works fine, but weaker years like 1950 and 1960 seem to need a little longer.

8) Look after your wine

Always keep your decanters cool; a temperature of about 15°C/60°F is fine, but temperatures over 20°C/70°F can make the wine harsh and spirituous.  At the other extreme, fridges are OK for keeping tawny and white ports, but are generally too cold for vintage ports.

If you don’t have somewhere suitable to keep the decanter at this temperature, get a large unglazed clay flowerpot; large enough for the decanter to stand inside.  Place the pot in a tray of water outdoors, and in the shade, and stand the decanter inside with a tea towel over the top; this is how your great-grandparents kept milk cool before the days of fridges!

- Enjoy!

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