I have been buying old vintage port from 1917 onwards for my hotels and fishing expeditions for some 12 years now all from auctions or from ebay at the rate of 4 to 6 cases per year and I have never had a bad bottle of port. What set me of on this train of thought is I ran into an old friend yesterday who I had not seen for ages who I sold a bottle of the Sandemans 1917 port to some 12 years ago now and he wanted to know if I had anymore so good was it. When he mentioned the port I immediately thought the worst and it was a relief to hear how good it was! These 4 bottles of port came from a house clearance and were discovered beneath some slates in an old potting shed where they had presumably been since world war 1. The wax seals were broken but all 4 bottles were brilliant.
When buying wine and port at auctions it has always been a worry that the goods you are buying have been stored badly or have simply gone past their best and you will get something home that is rubbish. Unless you are buying from big auction houses selling complete cellars or large lots with a bottle that has been opened there is a risk. However I would urge you with old vintage ports to just get stuck in and get them bought where ever you find them.
Though these experiences are not conclusive I would urge you to view the risks of buying old port as worth taking. Do some research on the years and port houses you are considering buying to get the style that you prefer and get to an auction or click on ebay and buy some. You will also derive pleasure from having really old bottles of port around in your cellar. Much of the enjoyment in life is cleaned from anticipation and what could be more keenly anticipated than a very fine old vintage port?
Nigel Milsom looks after the wine lists in his two hotels The Tufton Arms Hotel in Appleby, Cumbria and The Royal Hotel, Comrie, Perthshire.