When it comes to the varieties of port, a sweet fortified wine from Portugal, vintage port may command the spotlight for its rarity and exorbitant pricing, but tawny port also has its champions among port aficionados. Tawny port's mellow character, consistency, lower cost and durability make it a better introductory port for budding wine lovers than its attention-grabbing sibling.
Making Tawny Port
All port begins with the fermentation of juice from a blend of any of the numerous grape varietals permitted by Portuguese regulations. Before all sugars from the juice convert to alcohol, vintners fortify the wine with aguardente, a flavorless spirit similar to brandy. This halts fermentation, leaving behind enough residual sugar to give port its sweetness. Whereas other varieties of port age just a few years in wooden barrels before bottling, tawny port is left to age much longer -- sometimes for decades. Some producers shortcut the process by blending white and ruby varieties and labeling the mixture tawny port; the resulting product lacks the complexity of barrel-aged tawny ports.
Age and Quality
Regarding the quality of tawny port, wine experts reserve their praise for what some call "aged tawny ports." To create this type of tawny port, skilled vintners blend different vintages of long-aged, high-quality wine to achieve a flavor profile consistent with the style of their respective port houses. These tawnies sport labeling such as "10 years," "20 years," "30 years" and "40 years" on their bottles, indicating not so much the exact time in the barrel, but rather whether the wine has the characteristics of a youthful or older tawny port.
Tawny port gets its name from its hue. Due to the porosity of wood, the wine slowly oxidizes during its time in the barrel, changing color from ruby to amber. Younger tawnies taste of red fruit. With age, the fruit gives way to richer flavors -- hinting of nuts, caramel and raisins -- and the wine becomes more concentrated. For tawny ports that strike a good balance between the vibrancy of younger wines and complexity of older ones, port specialist Richard Mayson recommends seeking out the 20-year-aged variety.
Serving and Storing Tawny Port
Although the French and Portuguese often drink tawny port as an aperitif, those who prefer to indulge in sweet things after supper may find it makes a better ending than a prelude to a meal. Tawny port pairs well with desserts featuring caramel, dried fruits, nuts or warm spices and serves as a sugary foil to salty cheese courses. Slightly chill tawny port, suggests "Wine Enthusiast Magazine" writer Roger Voss, and it turns into a refreshing summertime quaff. Producers bottle tawny port when ready to drink, so these wines require no cellaring. Unlike most other wines, which fade soon after opening, tawny port is drinkable for several weeks after opening when stored in the fridge.