Tawny Port is a difficult category for American consumers, particularly those who are averse to tannins. Unlike vintage Port, which acquires the majority of its aging in bottle, tawnies are matured in cask and take on the character of the wood as they age. The classic food pairings for tawny Port—liver paté, strong cheese, crème caramel, fig tarts—haven’t helped catapult it into the mainstream either. Even so, an aged tawny from a top producer can be wonderfully complex and satisfying.
The rarest of tawnies are colheitas, vintage-dated Ports from a single harvest. They are aged in barrel for a minimum of seven years, which lends the wine a light tan color along with flavors of nuts and sweet, dried fruits. Of the several Port houses that specialize in colheitas, the oldest and best known is Kopke. Nicolau Kopke arrived in Portugal’s Douro Valley from Hamburg in 1636 and began shipping his wines two years later. Through nearly three centuries and various changes of ownership, Kopke has forged a reputation as a specialist in aged and vintage-dated tawny Port.
Any discussion of the category begins with white port, a Malvasia-based blend that is fortified in the same way as red Ports—although most commercial white ports are dry, and the less expensive versions make an excellent aperitif when mixed with tonic. Both the Kopke White Colheita 2003 ($90) and 20-Year-Old White Port ($115) have a light amber color and a honeyed, oxidative nose. Both are sweet on entry; the Colheita (from one of the hottest summers in modern history) is richer in the mid palate, while the 20-Year-Old displays vibrant acidity that is both mouthwatering and appealing. What’s the technical difference between the two? Remember that the colheita is aged at least seven years, while the 20-Year-Old is a blend of differently aged wines with an average of 20 years.
Tawnies bottled with an age statement represent not just a blend of different vintages but a carefully calibrated representation of the house style, and it’s instructive to compare the Kopke 10 and 20-Year-Old Tawnies ($40 and $55, respectively). Despite the age difference, both wines are a dull amber color, verging toward tan. The 10 Year has a charming, forward nose redolent of red fruits, with very slight oxidation. It is just as brash and charming in the mouth, with flavors of cherries and rhubarb tempered by good acidity and supple tannins. The nose of the 20 Year is more recessed, giving up whiffs of tea and overripe melon with coaxing. There’s greater intensity in the mouth, beginning with a rich coulis of strawberries and cherries on entry, and progressing to a wood-dominated, tart mid palate with echoes of Sherry and grape skins.
The Colheitas from 2012 ($48) and 2002 ($53) provide a vivid contrast. 2012 has a dark ruby center, with a fading orange rim; bright red fruit aromas on the nose are mixed with hints of caramel and honey. In the mouth, flavors of wild strawberry and rhubarb are starting to give way to wood tannins. The light, orange-colored 2002 has a nose dominated by raisins, figs, walnuts and dried flowers. Most of the fruit has gone south, leaving a complex texture with suggestions of chocolate, pepper, and caramel.
Fashions in wine come and go. Clive Coates MW once observed that for much of human history, consumption of sweet wine was a mark of status in society. During the post-World War II era, this certainly hasn’t been the case. However, we live in an age when Moscato has made the world safe for sweet wine again, and consumers can imbibe a liquid dessert without suffering a stigma. It may just be time to try a tawny Port.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?