Tasting Wine: The pleasures of tawny port

Truth be told, I’d rather drink tawny port than vintage. Some of you may think this is a bit odd, or even a deficiency on my part, but I take solace in knowing that I’m not alone. Enjoying tawny port does not mean that one cannot enjoy other types of ports. However, tawny port has some things in common with both Madeira and sherry, so people who like these wines, especially the former,will often have a preference for tawnies.

What is tawny port and how is it different from other port? Tawny is named as such for its amber, brown color. It is made from red grapes, like vintage and ruby ports, but it is aged in wood for an extended time period. As a result, it tends to be smoother. Also, wood treatment imparts a nutty, sometimes smoky or woodsy character, and promotes oxidation.

Twenty-, 30- and 40-year-old tawny ports have a prominent, oxidized quality. Most tawny ports are blends of several vintages; the label will indicate the average age of the grapes. Younger tawny ports, such as 10-year-old tawnies, tend to have more fruit and are reddish-brown colors, while older tawnies, especially 40-year-olds, have more of a nutlike, toffee and caramel flavor and color. Needless to say, old ports are more expensive than young ones.

There are also “colheita” tawnies made from a single vintage and aged in wood. Unlike vintage port, colheitas are made in varying vintages, not just the best years. There are houses that are known for colheitas, such as Niepoort and Smith Woodhouse, and others that make colheita tawny from time to time.

For our purposes, I’m going to mention a few of my favorite 20-year-old tawny ports. These provide a good balance of fruit and the complexity that comes with older port.

Niepoort 20 Year Tawny

Although Dirk Niepoort is known for his vintage tawnies, his other tawny ports are just as stellar. With honey-coated nuts and dried stone fruits, it is a truly delicious blend from the colheita king.

Suggested retail: $60

Ferreira Ducque de Bragança

This is one of the best-selling tawny ports in Portugal and it certainly is very consistent. Founded in 1751, Ferreira has remained a Portuguese-owned company. Medium-bodied with spice, dried apricots, hints of marmalade and caramel, this is truly one of the hallmarks of the Douro.

Suggested retail: $60

Dow 20 Year Tawny

Tried and true, Dow 20 Year Tawny remains one of the best tawnies around. Smooth as silk with nuts, toffee, vanilla and orange peel, it remains a classic.

Suggested retail: $50

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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