The Boston Phoenix
January 20 - 27, 2000


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Tawny, anyone?

Not just any port in a storm

by David Marglin

When the weather gets cold, dinners get a bit longer, and one needs to brace for that bitter night air. The British had a solution to this familiar problem: port. Ports are fortified wines made by adding a bit of brandy to normal grape wine to stop the fermentation process. They tend to be strong and sweet, with alcohol levels around 18 percent.

For better or worse, port will always be associated with the sea; it was invented in the 17th century as a way to keep wines made in Portugal from going bad on their long voyages to England via Newfoundland. When you think of port, you probably think of thick, massive vintage ports, which are profound, ageworthy (and seaworthy) monsters. These are the most famous ports, dated with a specific year and intended to be drunk years, even decades, after they're released. Not every harvest results in a vintage port -- most producers release only three or four vintages each decade -- so vintage ports are expensive. They can also be inconsistent, and if you happen to get the last glass of an undecanted vintage port, watch out for sediment, a/k/a "crud," lurking in your glass.

There is, however, an alternative. Tawny port, so called because of its faded brownish hue, tends to be mellower, nuttier, and more approachable than vintage -- and it is often a much better value. Tawnies are versatile, durable, and delicious; a tawny port is now my favorite way to end a big, hearty meal, as it pairs rather well with most desserts. Tawnies are more au courant than vintage ports, but all port is enjoying a renaissance -- even white port, a favorite Parisian bistro beverage. Unlike cognac, a drink that tends to linger, ports go down quick and easy (perhaps too easy -- watch out for that second glass).

Tawnies -- even those labeled as 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old -- are usually blends of wines from different years. (The rule is that the tawny must have the "character" of the age claimed.) To complicate matters, there is a kind of tawny, known as colheita, made from a single year's harvest. Many port purists, however, prefer the blends over colheitas, because blending allows the shipper to create a house character and style.

Just as true Champagne comes only from one region of France, true port -- whether vintage, tawny, ruby, or "late-bottled vintage" -- comes only from a handful of producers in Portugal. No country has had much success trying to imitate vintage port, but a number of winemakers outside Portugal produce excellent tawny-style wines. In South Africa, KWV (the country's largest winemaker) makes an outstanding tawny, and in Australia, Yalumba's Galway Pipe is superb, and a steal even at $25 a bottle. American ports include Prager, Phelps Ink Grade, and a zinfandel-based port from Rosenblum, as well as cabernet-based ports such as Justin's Obtuse. These wines can be exciting, if a tad sweet.

Personally, I like 20-year tawnies, although I did try a 40-year from Graham's that was supple and pure. A lot of people like their ports with cheese, especially Stilton, and others say nuts are best, especially walnuts. I am partial to tawny port with chocolates and tarts involving pears or apples.

Because even tawny port can be expensive (they start around $20 a bottle), it's worth trying a glass -- or several -- to discover what you like. You can find tawnies by the glass at fine restaurants, especially those in hotels, which have a lot of foreign travelers. Many of the best tawnies aren't sold at wine shops at all. Around Boston, the new Federalist has a long port list, but you pay the price. Elsewhere, the most extensive selections are at Olives, No. 9 Park, the Vault, Biba, Radius -- the usual suspects. Once you find out what you like in terms of age and style, you'll be able to open a bottle after dinner and dazzle your friends with your digestif savvy. (You don't have to finish it all at once: once opened, a bottle of tawny can keep for at least a week.)

The prices below are estimates of what you'll pay at a restaurant.

Yalumba Galway Pipe Tawny, South Australia ($7 per glass). A very handy wine, with flavors of orange and tangerine. Just a bit of candy, with berry sweetness on the finish. Great caramel color.

Hardy's "Whiskey Blake" 8-Year Tawny ($6 per glass). Nuts and melon, quite broad in the mouth, if a tad tart. Lots of heart, less soul, though still a solid value.

Niepoort 20-Year Tawny ($10 per glass). Mostly caramel; sweet with a hint of cream and hazelnuts. Full-bodied but mellow as can be.

Niepoort 1985 Colheita ($12 per glass). Intense strawberry, like a fruit bar. Clean and sharp with a drop of honey, hints of burnt orange, and a dash of clove.

Niepoort 30-Year Tawny ($22 per glass). A huge butterscotch rush, complex but very smooth, with spices and bananas. A great one, from a shipper that specializes in tawnies.

Quinta do Noval 1974 Colheita ($12 per glass). Black mission figs on the nose, very young up front, with almond-oil essence on the finish. An expansive wine with a note of caramel to close.

Dow's 10-Year Tawny ($8 per glass). Bright and lively, with notions of cherry and star fruit. Touches of coffee and cinnamon toast round out this solid, sticky wine.

Dow's 1982 Colheita Tawny ($9 per glass). Crisp, with pear and chestnuts. No scalding fire, but a slow, steady burn.

Dow's 20-Year Tawny ($11 per glass). This port whistles boysenberry, very shrill, with a clean and smooth (albeit short) finish. Very decent and highly civilized -- would match well with a good cigar.

Graham's 40-Year Tawny ($23 per glass). Dates and figs, dried fruits and walnuts -- really an elegant trail mix with notes of cream, vanilla, and a Heath-bar taste. Worth all those pretty pennies if you're splurging.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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