I don’t like sweet wines,” protested my neighbor Tim as I passed petite glasses around the table. I was serving him a Dow’s 10-year tawny Port, still young enough to be fast on its fruity feet, with a house style that leans less sweet. That evening, aided by a plate of serious cheeses and spiced nuts, Tim became a convert to the complex caramel flavors of aged tawny Port. The complexity comes from
extensive barrel aging in the winery (and he’s the last guy I’d expect to be won over by maturity).
Tim now enjoys ordering a glass in restaurants. “I like to drink my crème brûlée,” he says, referring to Port’s silky texture and burnt-sugar aroma. And who wouldn’t, when faced with the repetitive short list that makes up dessert menus these days. I personally like my dessert even more moist than the ubiquitous chocolate molten lava cake: so moist it’s liquid.
Not that you have to choose between the glass and the plate. Tawny Port purrs alongside homey desserts such as pecan pie or pumpkin flan. Be sure to dribble a little Port into the whipping cream! My favorite pairing sounds too easy, but it’s scrumptious: Sprinkle chopped toasted walnuts and pulverized candied ginger over your favorite vanilla ice cream and serve with tawny Port.
One of the few wines that taste like they sound (luckily not the case with Grüner Veltliner), tawny Port at its best is a strong, sweet, lithe creature of the cellar. It passes the years in barrel as a lion on a rock, seemingly sleeping but gaining authority. If the King of Beasts knew how to drink out of a bottle, he’d drink tawny.
As a kitten, tawny is a rich red wine, made from traditional Port grapes ripened in the Douro sun and fortified with brandy so as to stop the fermentation and leave some sweetness. With age, the red fades to a caramel color, with mysterious aromas that surface, such as toffee, hazelnuts, even soy sauce.
Tawny Port is released in 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year bottlings. The number refers to the average age of the wines in the blend; the older the wines, the higher the cost. Most wine lovers I know find the quality difference between the 20- and the 30-year to be subtler than the significant jump in price and therefore go straight to the 40-year tawny.
Some Port houses release a vintage-dated colheita (col-YATE’-ah), which is a tawny made from a single year’s harvest. Don’t get this confused with vintage Port, however. A vintage Port spends only two years in barrel before bottling and retains its ruby color. A colheita spends most of its life—20 years or more—in barrel before bottling, thus its caramel color and nutty flavor.
Both aged tawny and colheita travel from Portugal as mature adults; they’re ready to drink as soon as you buy them. Once you open the bottle, cap it and store in the fridge. (P.S. An open bottle of tawny is an open invitation to make an apple pie.)
Old-World Fakes and New-World Flatterers
You may see inexpensive bottles of tawny Port that have no age designation. These are generic sweet wines made of red and white grapes that have had some exposure to wood and air so as to approximate a lighter, tawnier color. Generic tawnies are excellent for deglazing a roast pan, particularly when lamb and rosemary are involved. But don’t drink them.
New-world winemakers have made great strides in their quest for homegrown, tawny-style dessert wines. (We can’t call them Ports unless the label says Porto, meaning they’re from Portugal.) New-world tawnies are rarely made of traditional grapes, but that’s changing as plantings of Bastardo, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão increase. Notable examples are Chateau Reynella of McLaren Vale, Australia, and St. Amant of Lodi.
Elaine’s Picks Of The Month
Dow’s 10-Year Aged Tawny Port ($25–$35)—Classic. Aromas of ripe plums baked with brown sugar. Tastes like crème brûlée, with a hazelnut toffee finish. Smooth, rich mouthfeel with bright acidity: not especially sweet. Serve with soft cheeses,
roasted almonds, pecan shortbread.
Ferreira 10-Year Tawny Port ($28–$30)—Bold. A fruit-forward tawny that tickles California palates. I found integrated spice, citron, raisin and burnt sugar in the nose, an intense, fruity, sweet palate, and a finish dripping with molasses and fig jam. Serve with salty nuts and cheeses, perhaps even a mild blue like Fourme d’Ambert. Note: You can try the Ferreira 20-year tawny by the glass ($18) at Aioli Bodega Española.
Niepoort 1995 Colheita Porto ($38–$45)—Elegant. Bottled in 2007. Aromas of toasted nuts, allspice, baked apple, cherry pie, vanilla, maple syrup and soy sauce. Soft and smooth mouthfeel, refined flavor, with a loooong finish of plum, cherry, tobacco, white pepper and baking spices. More than enough entertainment by itself, but pair with moist gingerbread and spiked whipped cream if you’re feeling peckish.
Smith Woodhouse 1986 Colheita Porto ($45–$50)—Singular. Matured in cask 18 years, bottled in 2004. Assertive nose of caramel, walnuts, burnt sugar, candied orange peel and cognac prunes. Warm on the palate, with flavors of prunes, currants, pomegranate, ginger and toffee. Well-balanced; lively. Just dreamy with almond flan.