Tawny Port style guide
Sharing the pinnacle with vintage Port, it used to be said that whereas vintage is the ‘king’ of Ports, tawny is the ‘queen’. The ageing process is of vital importance: whereas a vintage Port will mature in large wooden vats and then in bottle, tawnies will mature in small casks (lodge pipes of 600- to 640-litres capacity).
The wines undergo a steady process of controlled oxidation and esterification as the colour fades from deep, opaque ruby to orange-amber-tawny.
The tasting and blending of an aged tawny is a continual process. Wines set aside initially are often marked with the year of the harvest but as the shipper makes up new blends followed by blends of blends, the characteristics of individual wines gradually meld into the housestyle.
Tawnies may be bottled with an indication of age: 10, 20, 30 and 40 or over 40 years old being the categories officially permitted. These are obviously approximations and all wines have to be submitted for tasting by the IVDP for approval.
I adore the intricacy and delicacy of a well-aged tawny, a 20 Year Old being my preference for its complexity offset by freshness. Port shippers often opt for a gently chilled tawny after lunch in the heat of the Douro: think of aged tawny as a summer alternative to a fireside glass of vintage or LBV.
A good introduction to aged tawny, the Reserve category is defined by the IVDP as a Port that ‘boasts extremely elegant flavours, the perfect combination of the fruitiness of youth and the maturity of age, also apparent in their attractive medium golden-brown colour’. These wines are about seven years of age.
10 Year Old
Showing more age and finesse than a Reserve, 10 Year Old has seen a rapid increase in sales during recent years. This may explain a rather alarming variation in quality (something we noted at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards) with too many unbalanced and rather rustic wines. I would recommend tawnies from Burmester, Ferreira and Sandeman, which represent the epitome of fine 10 Year Old.
20 Year Old
The apogee of aged tawny – combining freshness, delicacy and the primacy of fruit with secondary savoury-nutty complexity from ageing in wood: this really tests the skill of the blender in the tasting room. Colours may vary according to house style, from tawny pink to pale amber-orange, occasionally with a touch of olive green on the rim. There is currently no shortage of excellent wines in this category.
30 and 40 Year Old
Bottled in tiny quantities, these rarefied wines tend to be richer and sweeter than 20 Year Old, with concentrations sometimes verging on unctuous. It is not uncommon for the wines to be lifted on the nose – a characteristic captured by the Portuguese term vinagrinho. Balance is everything, and having the stocks to draw on is paramount, as well as skill in blending.
The Portuguese word colheita means ‘harvest’. The wine must be from a single year, aged for a minimum of seven years in wood before bottling. In practice many are aged for considerably longer, and so a colheita can vary greatly in style – from a mid-deep, relatively youthful, berry fruit-driven wine, to the softest and most venerable of tawnies.
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Edited by Laura Seal for Decanter.com