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Understanding Tawny Port

Find out the key elements to understanding tawny Port, one of the wine world’s best-loved fortified wines. Richard Mayson talks oak barrel ageing, careful selection and finely tuned blending

Understanding tawny Port

After a grand dinner with a Port shipper, you might find that you are offered a glass of ‘mouthwash’. This is not the time to reach for the Listerine – the term was a once a euphemism for a glass of chilled tawny Port.

Coming at the very end of the evening, after a glass or three of vintage Port, a gently chilled, well-aged tawny certainly refreshes the parts that no other wine (or beer) can reach.

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.

Know your Port – The Decanter guide

A question of age

True tawny starts with the Reserve designation, and extends into indications of age: 102030 and Over 40 Years are the categories permitted by the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP).

But, the flexibility of the age indications gives the shippers more freedom when creating a house style, fine-tuning here and there with small quantities of younger or older wines.

In so-called ‘lodge pipes’ – seasoned casks of between 600 litres and 640 litres – the wine undergoes a process of gradual, controlled oxidation and esterification as the colour fades and ethyl esters and acetals develop in the wine.

The formation of these components is influenced by the storage temperature and evaporation rate. For example, a tawny made in the hot Douro Valley undergoes a different and more rapid maturation process than a tawny aged in the cooler, more humid conditions of Vila Nova da Gaia.


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.

The final lote (batch) has to be submitted to the IVDP tasting panel for approval. But the selection process starts in the vineyard.

Careful selection

Understanding Tawny Port

Winemakers at Graham’s check the alcohol levels and fermentation progress

‘We are seeking elegance and balance,’ explained head winemaker for Sandeman and Ferreira Luis Sottomayor. ‘This is associated with well-integrated acidity and a sugar level that is not too high – the sugars are always increasing during the evolution of the wine.’

‘We achieve balance by using grapes from different altitudes and different stages of maturation,’ added Carlos Alves, winemaker for the Sogevinus group (which includes tawny specialists Kopke, Cálem and Burmester).

‘There is likely to be less Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca in the blend, although these varieties continue to be important, and a greater use of varieties such as Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and Tinta Roriz,’ specified Port consultant Jim Reader.

Tasting and blending is a continuous process; regular racking provides the tasting room with an opportunity to monitor the character and evolution of each lote. The final lote may be made up of anything between 10 and 50 different component wines with younger, fresher, fruit-driven Ports balancing older, mature styles.

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.

Richard Mayson is the DWWA Regional Chair for Port and Madeira. He also writes on www.richardmayson.com, and he is the author of Port and the Douro.

Edited by Laura Seal for Decanter.com

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