Aged tawny, the lighter side of port

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:27 PM

Second of two parts

Come here: Let me tell you a secret. Three little words that will win you the respect of wine lovers and help you understand why we seem capable of talking about nothing else.

Aged. Tawny. Port.

As I write this, I'm savoring Dow's 20-Year-Old Tawny, holding my glass up to the computer screen so the light shines through the last amber swirl of wine in the bowl. Its aromas suggest dried orange peel, clove, cardamom and pine. Do you like the smell of Christmas? Then aged tawny is for you.

Aged tawny is the opposite of vintage port. Vintage is aged in cask for only two years before bottling, with minimal exposure to oxygen. It is meant to age for years and even decades in the bottle (in your cellar after you pay for it, mostly) before it sheds its tannins and unfurls an exotic compote of dried fruits. Aged tawny is what the name suggests: It's mature, ready to drink as soon as you buy it.

Aged in 600-liter casks called pipes, the wine is drawn off, or racked, into large vats once a year so sediment can be removed, then returned to the pipes. In the process, about 3 percent of the wine is lost: some in the discarded sediment, the rest - the "angels' share" - to evaporation. Before the final blend is bottled (usually beginning six years after harvest), the pipes are topped off with younger and/or older wine, to balance the flavors and create a house style unaffected by vintage variation. (There is, of course, an exception to that practice; ports labeled "Colheita" are single-vintage aged tawnies.)

"The program is designed to create a product at the end that is independent of vintage quality, independent of temperature and humidity conditions in the intervening years while the wine aged," said Adrian Bridge, managing director of the Fladgate Partnership, which includes the port houses of Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft and Delaforce. "So in essence, we are not looking backward to the vintage conditions, but forward to the wine in the glass."

In an interview a few years ago, Bridge explained to me how aged tawny differs from vintage port. "Vintage port is rare, and we tend to drink it only on special occasions," he said. "Aged tawny, on the other hand, is lighter in style, which makes it more appealing in warmer weather, especially when served slightly chilled."

It was a late-spring interview, which explains Bridge's emphasis on warm weather. Since then, I have enjoyed aged tawny in all seasons, and though I agree that it tastes best when chilled, I find it ideal for dessert during cooler times. It pairs beautifully with apple pie, creme brulee, creamy cheeses, desserts based on nuts or dried fruits, and warm winter fires.

Tawny is aged in decades: 10 or 20 years old, mostly, but also 30 or 40. A 10-year-old tawny costs about $30, while 20-year-olds run close to $50. The difference between a 10 and a 20 is remarkable, as the dried-orange-peel and spice flavors become more pronounced. From 20 to 30, the gain is not really worth going up to $100 or more, while 40-year-olds are otherworldly in quality and price. The back label usually tells what year the wine was bottled, so you know how fresh it is.

As a gift-giving guide, if you love the person, buy a 10. If you really love him, get the 20. And if he has incriminating evidence that could ruin you, splurge on the 40. Some secrets, after all, are worth keeping hidden, while others, like aged tawny, should be shared.

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