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Summer Treat: Chilled 10-Year-Old Tawny Ports

August 20, 2010

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When I was in Portugal this past May, I learned that the Portuguese enjoy tawny ports served chilled in the summer months.

We’re still waiting for our summer months this year in Northern California—this has been the coolest July and August in memory. One expects, of course, to experience the chill in San Francisco these months, and the City has not disappointed in this respect, with some very foggy and bitterly cold days as usual this summer. Down the Peninsula, however, where I live, and up in the Sonoma and Napa wine country where I regularly visit, it’s usually in the 80s and 90s, at least, this time of year. Not so in 2010, however, with the morning “June gloom” having persisted through July and August. I’m not complaining about the lack of summer heat here; I actually really like it cool, although it’s keeping my tomatoes from ripening and could have some very unfortunate consequences for local wine grapes if they don’t start seeing more sun and heat before harvest time. So while we haven’t yet had ideal weather this summer for enjoying tawny ports as chilled aperitifs or nightcaps, I did purchase several tawny ports in July, when there was a brief suggestion of warming, to experiment with and compare. I wanted to figure out which ones I liked better chilled, and how much difference it made to the taste to chill them. Maybe you’re actually experiencing summer where you live, and, if so, you might benefit from a few more suggestions as to cool and tasty things to drink this time of year.

Tawny ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation, which concentrates the flavors but also mellows the wine. As a result of this aging, they gradually change to a golden-brown or “tawny” color. The exposure to wood tends to impart nutty flavors, and different casks are ultimately blended to match the house style (e.g., very sweet for Graham’s, comparatively dry for Niepoort). When a port is described as tawny without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels. Above this level are tawnies with an indication of age that represent a blend of several vintages, with the average number of years “in wood” stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. These categories indicate a target age profile for the port, not the actual ages of all their constituent parts. The generic and 10-year-old tawnies can be relatively inexpensive—running from about $15 to $30, as compared to $35 to $50 for 20-year-old tawnies, and significantly more expensive for vintage ports.

I particularly love 20-year-old tawnies and all their complexity. Since some of that complexity, both on the nose and palate, would be lost if they were served much cooler than room temperature, I do not recommend chilling that level of tawny. My sampling and experimenting has so far been limited to the 10-year-old category, which can be quite good at room temperature, but also still interesting when chilled.

Here’s a list of ten 10-year-old tawnies I’ve tried so far this year, some of them multiple times, ranked in order of my point scores. My very favorite both chilled and unchilled is the Niepoort, with its complexity and relative dryness, closely followed by the Fonseca. The Fonseca, in particular, takes on a different, slightly darker character when it’s chilled, with maple syrup, walnut and honey predominating. I also very much like the Graham and Noval tawnies for a nightcap. As far as price, the Fonseca, Noval and Graham can all be found for $27 or less at a number of places; the Niepoort runs more, as much as $35 or so.

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  • N.V. Niepoort Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (8/2/2010)
    Medium reddish amber color with ruby lights; pecan, vanilla fudge, tart blood orange nose; poised, tangy, vanilla fudge, pecan, baked orange palate; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (when chilled, has more of a pecan palate with good acidity) (92 pts.)
  • N.V. Fonseca Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (8/2/2010)
    Very dark brown red color; VA, walnut skin, roasted walnut, date, fruit cake nose; soft, rounded, silky textured, fruit cake, dates, walnut palate; medium-plus finish (when chilled, maple syrup, walnut and honey flavors predominate) (92 pts.)
  • N.V. Graham Porto 10-year Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (7/21/2010)
    Tawny medium brown color with ruby lights; VA, walnut, light coffee, ginger cake nose with warmth and depth; poised, creamy, light coffee, nutty, ginger cake, walnut, smooth palate; medium-plus finish 91+ pts. (91 pts.)
  • N.V. Quinta do Noval Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (7/16/2010)
    Medium orange red color with ruby lights and clear meniscus; dried cherry, baked cherry, raspberry nose; baked cherry, dried cherry, dry, red berry, walnut, walnut skin palate; long finish (when chilled, very nice and walnutty) (91 pts.)
  • N.V. J.W. Burmester Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (4/5/2010)
    Refined, hazelnut, coffee nose; hazelnut, coffee, caramel palate; long finish (91 pts.)
  • N.V. Ferreira Porto Tawny 10 Year Quinta do Porto – Portugal, Douro, Porto (4/5/2010)
    Praline, sweet coffee nose; coffee, hazelnut palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • N.V. Dow Porto 10 Year Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (3/27/2010)
    Light medium red orange color; baked orange, dried berry nose; coffee, orange liqueur, fig, espresso palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • N.V. Kopke Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (4/5/2010)
    Coffee, caramel nose; coffee, caramel palate; medium-plus finish 88+ pts. (88 pts.)
  • N.V. Sandeman Porto 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/19/2010)
    Light medium cherry orange red color with orange lights; caramel, slightly spirity nose; tight, caramel, tart raspberry, creme brulee palate, a little hot; medium-plus finish 88+ pts. (88 pts.)
  • N.V. Warre Porto Otima 10 Year Old Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto (4/5/2010)
    Apricot, nutty nose; nutty, caramel palate; long finish 88+ pts. (88 pts.)
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