Rosengarten Classic. Originally Published: ROSENGARTEN REPORT, November 2001.
I’m in the Tawny Port Minority…and proud!
If you’re a lover of Port—the great, sweet, fortified wine from Portugal, which has many different sub-types—you are supposed to love Vintage Port above all. It is the rarest Port. It is the most expensive Port.
But is it the best Port? Not in my tasting experience.
Vintage Port is made, as most Port is not, from the grapes of a single outstanding vintage. Those grapes are usually superior grapes, and they usually come from a variety of top vineyard sites owned by the producer. The thing that’s unusual about Vintage Port is the short amount of time it spends in barrels after it’s made: only two years or so. When it gets bottled at that point, usually without filtration, it has hardly aged, is still a massive, corpulent, deep-purple thing. The “more-is-more” bunch understands this kind of wine all the way. The theory is that if you let it continue to age in the bottle—say, a good 30 or 50 years—at some point it will become merely red, not purple any longer, its 20% alcohol will have slipped into the background, and its rough flavors will have become harmonious and complex.
For me, there’s just one problem: in all the times I’ve tasted aged Vintage Port, I’ve never once said “Aha! This one is perfect! This is what the textbook told me to expect!” They’re either too hot, too tannic, too monochromatic, too monolithic, or too too.
The transforming moment for me was a lunch in Portugal’s Douro Valley, where Port is produced, about 15 years ago. For the group of American and British wine writers with whom I was traveling, the Port guys pulled out all the stops—and a couple of 60-year-old Vintage Ports. They also pulled out a couple of 60-year-old Tawny Ports. The Anglos started writhing in their chairs when they saw the VPs, quickly helped themselves to glasses of them, and completely ignored the Tawnies on the table. Our Portuguese hosts, I was startled to see, did exactly the opposite. I was sitting next to one, and I asked him why. “Because,” he said, as if he’d been down this road before,” to us, Vintage Port is wine. But Tawny Port is Port.”
That did it for me, I started paying more attention to this amazing beverage, so overlooked in England and America—and eventually became a Tawny guy all the way.
Tawny Port is vastly different from Vintage Port. It is in the larger category known as “Wood Port”—which means it spends much more time in barrels than Vintage Port does. Therein lies the key distinction. Those years in barrels—sometimes 40 or more—completely transform the character of the wine. Because in-the-barrel Tawny comes in contact with much more air than it would have in a bottle, it changes color, from purple to brown. It also changes flavor. Vintage Port is a matter of red fruits, jam, related aromas; Tawny Port is a matter of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, nuts. Vintage Port is macho, aggressive, almost as violent as it is violet; Tawny Port is gentle, smooth, as reassuring as a lovely old melody.
And…I love it with food in a way I’ve never loved Vintage Port with food. The latter has its moments with strong cheeses, to be sure, and with chocolate—but it has so many edges you have to be careful what you choose to eat. Tawny Port, much more accommodating, is one of my favorite wines in the world with all kinds of cheese (I try to match younger, sweeter ones with firm cheeses, and older, drier ones with creamier cheeses.) I love Tawny with all manner of nuts, and nut desserts. Dried fruits and dried fruit desserts are also wonderful Tawny-mates. And, any creamy dessert that offers a Tawny-like range of flavors—like Crème Brûlée—is perfect with you know what.
And that’s not to mention a magnificent glass of old Tawny by the fireplace as dessert. For make no mistake: the month of December is Tawny Prime Time. Buy plenty right now—because if you don’t get to them by the time the weather warms up again, they’ll hold magnificently for years.
I’ve been tasting Tawnies ever since that fateful day in the Douro, and have developed a stable of favorites over time. I’m listing them for you, broken down into the six main categories of Tawny Port you’re likely to see in your wine shop. Distribution of Tawny Port across the country is decent, so you have a real chance of finding many of these nearby.
The youngest and least expensive Tawnies of all are also the least Tawny-like. At some Port houses, they really aren’t Tawny at al—they are blends of young red Port with white Port. But even the real deal isn’t that Tawny-like. Because Basic Tawnies haven’t spent that much time in barrels—they are really Tawnies-in-training—they often seem like Ruby Port/Tawny Port combinations. They may be more red than they are brown, and—along with all that great, developing caramel, they may offer quite a lot of plum-cherry-red fruit aroma and flavor. They’re good Tawnies for starters, but they’re not profound.
The tradition in Portugal is to hold on to the better Tawnies in barrels for some years, and then to blend them together. If the blended Tawnies have an average age of 10 years, then it is legal to call those wines “10-Year-Old-Tawny.” If you like to have vestiges of red fruit hanging out in your Tawny, this is the category for you; you begin to glimpse the brownish magnificence that lies just ahead, but you can still feel the wine’s fiery youth. This is a big upgrade in quality from Basic Tawnies.
At 20 years old (again, average age of blended wines), Tawnies are still very concentrated and vital—but they have now knit together into something that could never be mistaken for anything else. They are gloriously brown, and, often, stuffed with toffee-butterscotch-walnut flavors. These are the favorites of those who love vigorous Tawny tastes.
Some Tawny aficionados believe that after 20 years in the barrel Tawny Ports start drying out—not a good thing, to them. Me, I do believe that older Tawnies are drier—but they bring a whole new range of exciting flavors to the table, like the amazing taste of old butter that you get in old Madeira. When a Tawny Port has aged in barrels for 30 years (again, average age of blended wines), it is often on the cusp between the vigor of a 20, and the gentler complexity of a 40. In my Tawny-buying life, I’ve usually gone for either the 20 or the 40—but there are some wonderful 30-somethings out there that have come together just perfectly.
If you like to see just how far a Tawny can go in developing layers of unexpected flavor—cheese? truffles? earth?—you have to go all the way to the big-bucks 40-Year-Old (again, average age of blended wines.) These are without doubt the most complex Tawnies on the market. But not everyone loves them—because they’ve often traded in their vigor and richness for that extra complexity. I love ’em.
Colheitas (pronounced coal-YAY-tuhs)
One of the most intriguing Tawny Port categories is Colheitas—Tawny Ports made in a single vintage, then held in barrels for many, many years. They vary wildly. The greatest Tawny Port I’ve ever tasted—the amazing 1963 Krohn—was a Colheita. But some Colheitas can seem thin and uninteresting next to the Tawnies with an indication of age (like the 10-year-olds, 20-year-olds, etc.) Following suit, you’ll find prices all over the map as well. Shop carefully.