On a cold winter night I like to snuggle up on the couch with a blanket and a glass of something that is sure to take the chill off…something stronger than your average glass of wine… a small glass (or two) of Tawny Port. I love most types of Port, but Tawny Port is my absolute favourite – I love its sweet caramelly flavour and silky texture…and the way it warms up even my icy toes.
What is Tawny Port?
There are basically two broad categories of Port: those that are wood matured and those that are bottle matured. “Wood matured” Port is aged for varying lengths of time in wood (or stainless steel or cement) until it is judged “ready to drink” and bottled. “Bottle matured” Ports spend a short time in wood but are bottled relatively early and left to develop in bottle. Vintage Ports are a bottle aged Ports, while aged Tawny Ports are wood matured in a controlled, oxidative environment.
Basic Tawny Port
Much of the Tawny Port sold today is of a very basic quality without the complexity and concentration of a “true” aged Tawny. A basic Tawny port may not have been aged for much longer than a Ruby Port, which is usually much less than 3 years, and may have been made from lighter wines grown in the cooler areas of the Douro where the grapes rarely ripen to give much depth and intensity of fruit.
Often certain winemaking practices are employed to give a lighter coloured wine and sometimes White Port is added, producing a wine with a tell-tale pink colour as opposed to amber-brown. Producers may also heavily fine and filter a wine in order to strip some of the colour away. In some cases, caramelized grape must is added to give an artificially mature colour and aroma to the wine.
Aged Tawny Port
A Port that has been left to age in wooden casks (called pipes) for an extended period of time will change from a purplish-red colour to a tawny colour, giving this style of Port its
name. Over time, oxygen enters the barrels allowing for the evaporation of some of the wine. The sugars and flavours become more concentrated and the wine takes on a soft, silky character full of complexity and elegance. These are fortified wines of high quality made with the utmost of care. Most Aged Tawnies are bottled with an indication of age on the label (See below).
Aged Tawnies are carefully blended from a number of years and are selected from among the finest ports sourced from the best vineyards. The final blend may be made up from as many as 50 different component wines. The younger, fresher, fruit-driven wines balance the maturity of the older wines. The tasting and blending of the wines is a continuous process as the producer strives to create a “house style” that is consistent from year to year.
The label on a bottle of Aged Tawny Port will give the date of bottling which is important because they may begin to deteriorate if they are left in the bottle for too long.
Tawny Port with an Indication of Age
Aged Tawny Port may have an indication of their age on the label. The wines may be designated as 10, 20, 30, or over 40 years old. These ages are approximations only, as Tawny Ports are a blend of many different years. They are not minimum ages either. A 30-year-old tawny may have wine as young as 5-years-old blended with wine of 50-years-old. Some labels may simply indicate that the port is a “Reserve” tawny”, which means that it has spent at least 7 years in wood.
10-Year-Old Tawny: a brick-red colour in the centre with an amber-tawny rim. There will be a rich raisiny character and a toasty complexity from the time spent in the wood. These are the least expensive of the Aged Tawny Ports and can be great value.
20-Year-Old: the colour can range from tawny-pink to a pale amber-orange, sometimes with an olive-green rim. These wines have delicate fruit aromas with flavours of toasted almonds and brazil nuts. A 20-year-old tawny will be slightly sweeter than a 10-year-old because of the greater concentration of sugar. These wines can be very complex and are my personal favourite.
30-Year-Old: the colour can range from orange-amber to pale mahogany with an olive-green rim. These wines have a raisin-like richness with flavours of roasted coffee and nuts. The sweetness can be unctuous and sometimes even a bit cloying. These are more expensive than the 10- and 20-year-old tawnies, and more difficult to find.
Over 40-Years-Old: the colour can range from amber-tawny to deep mahogany with an olive-green rim. These are very mature wines with aromas and flavours of freshly roasted coffee, toasted almonds, marmalade, and candied peel with a rancio character. Some are cloyingly sweet, and most are very expensive.
Serving Tawny Port
Tawny Port is actually preferred in Portugal as their refinement and delicacy are a better match to the warmer Portuguese climate than a heftier Vintage Port. Tawny Ports can be thought of more as a summer wine. They can be served slightly chilled and even poured over ice, although some people like them served at room temperature. Try them a few ways to decide which way you prefer them.
Tawny Port can be paired with various dried fruit, especially apricot, pear tartlets, strawberries, sharp cheeses, bread pudding, rice pudding, crème brulée, crème caramel, and bittersweet chocolate.
(What is Tawny Port? was first published on Suite101.com.)