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Equally good in summer or winter, as an aperitif or a digestif, with a rich pud or the cheese course, it’s time the UK took more notice of aged tawny port says Joanna Simon
The most popular pouring port in restaurants in the US is Taylor’s 20 Year Old Tawny. Surprised? I was. Not because it was Taylor’s, but because it was an aged tawny. And not because I don’t think aged tawny cuts it as a restaurant style (it does), but because in Britain aged tawny is small fry. It’s growing, but it’s overshadowed by other styles of port – vintage, single quinta, ruby. I’m not even sure that many people know the difference between bog-standard tawny and aged tawnies. Skip the next paragraph if you do.
In theory, all tawnies are wood-aged ports, aged in casks until they’re ready for bottling and drinking, whereas bottle-aged ports, such as vintage, are bottled young and matured, yes, in the bottle. In practice, there are two very different types of tawny. Cheap, undated tawny is often little more than basic ruby with the colour stripped out or with white port added. Age-dated tawnies – 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years – are the real thing: high-quality ports kept until their colour has faded to tawny-amber and they’ve developed characteristic dried fruit and nut flavours. The older the tawny the more complex, nutty and toasted the taste.
Because of the time span and the way tawnies are blended, the four stated ages are an indication, not a precise age or even the average of the components. Mathematically, a 10-year-old could be nine years and three months or 10 years 10 months. But if it’s on sale, it has been passed as true to type by the port authorities – and it’s not in the interests of the shipper to short-change the consumer.
What the blender is aiming at is consistency, so that this year’s 10- or 20-year-old tastes exactly like last or next year’s. It’s the opposite of vintage port, which varies every year, but is the same principle as for non-vintage Champagne. And, as with Champagne, each shipper has a house style. Taylor’s, whose 10 Year Old is the UK market leader, is noted for freshness and fruitiness combined with complexity and nutty, toasted notes. Unlike British-owned shippers such as Taylor’s, the Portuguese houses traditionally have an oxidised, baked style, known as ‘Douro bake’ – the result of faster ageing.
Aged tawnies are less flamboyant and more delicate than vintage port, but more versatile. Because of their natural crispness, they’re as appropriate on a summer’s evening as in mid-winter and as suitable as an aperitif as for the traditional port slots of pudding, cheese and digestif. The key thing is to serve them cool – an hour or two in the fridge – and preferably in an ordinary wine glass.
As far as food is concerned, a 10-year-old is equally good matched to a creamy cheese or a pudding such as apple pie or chocolate mousse. The greater intensity and sweetness of a 20-year-old is a match for creamier puddings (créme brûlée or syllabub), honey and almond cake, and cheeses such as Parmesan and manchego. The 30- and 40-year-olds are rare and very special: I’d sip them on their own, but a simple cake, hard cheese or nuts wouldn’t rock the boat.
Another advantage of aged tawnies is that once opened, they keep well in the fridge if stoppered. You can keep a 10-year-old for a month and a 20-year-old for six weeks. What you shouldn’t do is keep an unopened bottle for more than a year; it won’t improve and will start to lose the freshness that sets it apart from other styles of port. Most labels carry the bottling date, so check that you’re buying this year’s or last year’s – then take it home, put it in the fridge and get the wine glasses ready.
Graham’s The Tawny
Undated, but aged about eight years; sweet, full and raisin-rich. (£15.99, selected Waitrose)
Harvey Nichols 10 Year Old Tawny
Velvety and chocolatey, with spiced plum fruit; made for Harvey Nics by Quinta da Rosa; chic, chunky bottle. (£20 for 50cl)
Noval 10 Year Old Tawny
Rich, nutty, dried fig flavours with hints of coffee and chocolate. (£15.99, Waitrose; £18.50, Fortnum & Mason)
Taylor’s 20 Year Old Tawn
Complex, nutty and exotically spicy, with cinnamon, sandalwood and incense aromas, and concentrated fruit. (£22–27.25, selected Majestic, Waitrose, Wine Rack)
Warre’s Otima 10
Polished 10-year-old with fig and sultana flavours; stylish, modern bottle. (£10.99 for 50cl, selected Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Thresher, Waitrose)