In the latest issue of Wine & Spirits magazine a report on top restaurant wines found that when it comes to dessert wines the most popular after-dinner tipple is tawny port. In fact, all but two of the top ten were tawnies. This may reflect the fact that this style is a particularly attractive by-the-glass option for restaurants in that an opened bottle will keep for at least a month and these wines don’t require decanting (both good reasons to stock up at home too). But practical considerations aside, tawny ports, specifically those that have been aged for a decade or more, are a delicious way to cap off an evening. Much lighter in body than young ruby’s or mature vintage ports, tawnies have nutty, caramel-like flavors that pair well with a wide variety of desserts such as apple tarts or chocolate mousse, while their sweetness makes them an excellent choice with cheese. And although we tend to associate port with winter weather and a roaring fire, you could also do as the Portuguese and sip them in the summer, slightly chilled, all on their own.
Of all the styles of port tawnies perhaps are the most challenging to make and are the most reflective of their shipping houses. They begin their lives the same way all ports do with red grapes crushed and vigorously macerated. Usually the best grapes are used, often from the same batch used for vintage ports since this style’s long aging requires firm tannins and high acidity. Grape spirit is then added to the must to halt fermentation, resulting in a sweet, intensely fruity wine with between 19 and 22% abv. Different houses halt fermentation at different times to obtain their own distinct level of sweetness (the earlier grape spirit is added the sweeter the wine). Wines destined to become tawnies are then aged in large wooden casks for the first few years and then transferred to smaller wood pipes. These are well-seasoned, neutral barrels not intended to impart any flavors to the wine. Instead, their purpose is to allow slow, controlled exposure to air over time. This gentle oxidation along with evaporation concentrates the sweetness and flavors and transforms the wine’s bright fresh fruit into more developed dried fruit, cinnamon, caramel and nuttiness. The color fades from bright purpley red to brownish amber, or tawny.
Tawny vs. Tawny
Not all tawny ports are created equally. It’s not uncommon to see generic “tawny” ports without an indication of age. These wines, however, have usually spent no more than a few years in barrel and are often blended with white port to replicate a true tawny. Those aged for seven years in barrel are labeled reserve tawnies and although a few good examples exist these are attractive mostly for their low price. Top quality tawny ports give an indication of age on the label: 10, 20, 30, or 40 years, which represents an approximation of the age of the component wines (they are blends of vintages). Each shipper aims to maintain a house style and may use anywhere from 10 to 50 different wines. One element of some tawnies is called “Duoro Bake” and refers to wine that has been aged in barrels kept in the hot, sunny Duoro valley rather than the cooler, coastal village of Vila Nova de Gaia. The higher inland temperatures cause more evaporation and quicker aging and give more pronounced “rancio” or carmelized flavors.
The longer the wine spends in barrel the deeper the concentration, the more developed the flavors and, of course, the more expensive it becomes. About 1- 2% is lost to evaporation every year (3% in the Duoro). Ten-year tawnies average around $20 per bottle retail, while 40-year tawnies are around $140. Hitting the sweet spot of a full array of tawny notes at a reasonable price are the 20-year tawnies, considered by many port aficionados to be the pinnacle of tawny ports. The style exhibits the transition between the vibrant fresh fruit of its younger self and the more mature, developed nutty notes and are slightly sweeter than the 10 year olds. Of those eight favorite tawnies, five were 20 year olds. Here then are some recommended 20-year tawnies and the restaurants where you can find them.
Recommended 20-year-old tawnies and where to drink them by the glass:
Ferreira “Duque de Braganca” 20 year old Tawny Port. Elegant and rich with distinct notes of walnuts, toffee, dried cherry and orange peel. $69.99 retail, $22/glass at Gramercy Tavern, 42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003, (212) 477-0777.
Fonseca 20 year old Tawny Port. Fonseca may be known for its vintage ports, but its 20-year tawny is top notch. This wine was my favorite of the three for its smooth and silky texture and its complex notes of stewed plums, dates, dried cherries, and candied pecans, which lingered for a good long time. $49.99 retail, $18/glass at Aldea, 31 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011, (212) 675-7223.
Taylor Fladgate 20 year old Tawny Port. This wine took top honors as the most popular dessert wine. Although I preferred the other two, this is still a delicious, bright and refined wine with notes of raspberry jam, dried cherry, and cloves. $50.97 retail, $20/glass at Bar Boulud, 1900 Broadway (at 64th Street) New York, NY 10023, (212) 595-0303.