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.
‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving wine lists when experts recommend their best bets for what to pair with the meal’s myriad, complicated flavors: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Favorites include Beaujolais crus, Rieslings, and Pinot Noirs, all wonderful choices, but that is where the lists usually end. So what to serve with the pumpkin pie? Give your holiday that extra special touch by serving a dessert wine that’s been specially chosen for the holiday’s signature desserts?
Pumpkin pie is by far my all-time favorite and even when I don’t think I have any room left I will find a way for a slice of this. Pumpkin pie is creamy, not to mention the dollop of whipped cream on top, and wonderfully rich with autumnal spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice. What’s needed is a wine that blends with the spices and isn’t too over-the-top sweet.
- Blandy’s Five Year Old Verdelho, $25. Madeira is a great choice due to its signature high acidity that cuts through all that richness. A drier style such as Verdelho with it’s nutty, dried fruit flavors would work well. These wines tend to be less sweet than the Malmseys or Boals, but still have a fair amount of residual sugar. In the world of fortified wines this is relatively light bodied with notes of dried fruits (raisins, punes and figs) and toffee, caramel and candied ginger. Its acidity not only cuts through the rich creaminess but also has the surprising effect of refreshing the palate, which, at this point in the meal, comes as a welcome relief. Its burnt orange color, too, couldn’t be better coordinated. And if you don’t manage to finish the bottle, no worries, due to the intentional oxidation and heating during the aging process, these will keep for next year’s celebration, or the one after that or the one after that. Blandy’makes wines that are readily available here in the U.S.
- Falchini Podere Casale I Vin Santo del Chianti, $25. This wine is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes that have been dried and aged in oak and cherry casks for many years. It is softer and more viscous than the Madeira but still has a bright acidity to keep it from being cloying. Flavors of candied orange, caramel, cloves and almonds work perfectly with the sweet spices of the pumpkin pie.
With its rich nutty sweetness pecan pie calls for something that can stand up to its intensity.
- Lustau Pedro Ximenez “San Emilio” Sherry, $29. Lusciously sweet, with silky, rich flavors of raisins, dried figs, dates, molasses and walnuts, this wine gets its concentration from Pedro Ximenez grapes that have been dried out in the sun for 4 to 10 days. The flavors are further concentrated by aging in the solera system that allows for controlled oxidation in barrels. If you wanted to forego pie altogether and just sip your dessert this would be the wine to have.
- Graham’s 20-year-old Tawny Port, $55. Rich and smooth, with notes of roasted walnuts, dried fruits and butterscotch, a 20-year tawny is the pinnacle of this style. The age indicated on the bottle is the average amount of time the wines have spent in wood casks. Extended wood aging slowly turns the wine a pale amber or brown, and its flavors develop from bright red fruit to concentrated dried fruit and caramel. Twenty years is the peak of a tawny’s evolution, when the tannins soften and the flavors come together to create a complex yet harmonious wine. Once opened these can be kept for about a month or two in the refrigerator (recorked of course).
There are many wines that pair well with apple pie, but if you want to keep things all American (or how about at least all North American?) than two choices come easily to mind.
- Inniskillin Vidal Icewine Niagara Pearl 2008, $54 for a half bottle (375 ml). Made from frozen grapes, icewine was originally a specialty of Germany and Austria, where it’s known as eiswein, but has turned out to be a popular wine to make in the cold climates of Canada and northern New York and Michigan. The grapes are picked while frozen on the vine, thus removing most of the water and concentrating the sugar and flavors of the grape. Some of Inniskillin’s icewines are oak aged, but his one is not, retaining the grapes fresh fruit flavors. This golden wine is silky sweet but with a refreshing amount of acidity and tastes of apricots, pears and honey.
- Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest Finger Lakes 2012, $30. More time on the vine translates into a sweeter, richer wine with deeper, more concentrated flavors. The Riesling grape is famous for retaining its acidity, which is critical for dessert wines, keeping them wine fresh and lively. Hermann J. Wiemer is a well-known producer from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the wine’s flavors of ripe apple, pear and honey pair perfectly with that quintessential American dessert—apple pie.