Wine Ink: Is it a Tawny? Port’s perfect pairing
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port — And about that Tawny I had with the figs and cheese. The master blender (I love that title) at the House of Graham attempts to achieve a perfect balance with this blend of wines that are both aged and relatively young. It is brownish — well, tawny actually — in color and it not only works well with cheese and figs, but also with vanilla ice cream. I suggest McConnells Vanilla Bean. Yum.
THE GRAPES OF PORT
The governing body of Port wines allows the use of as many as 80 different grapes in the making of Port. But the ones you need to know, the Starting Five, we will call them, are Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao.
It began with a plate of figs and cheese, offered at the end of the meal. My gracious and oh-so culinarily capable hostess stood in front of her wine closet and made a few suggestions for things she could open with the delectable offerings.
“I also have this Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port,” she said. It was a good decision. While my friend, always in search of something just a bit better than the blessings bestowed at a given moment, noted that she wished she had some good chocolate, the Graham’s was great with the fruit and cheese. Darkly amber in the glass with a slightly syrupy viscosity, there was sweetness and a smoky caramel taste. I thought it was great.
Port, or porto, as it is called when it hails from Portugal, is a fortified wine. That is to say, it is made from the juice of wine grapes that has been mixed, or fortified, with a dose of grape spirit or brandy. Its origins date to the 1600s, when the English squabbles with the French halted trade between the two monarchies. A new source of wines for England’s ever-thirsty consumers was required, and merchants quickly seized upon the opportunity in Portugal.
In the northern corner of the country, they found a fertile valley called the Douro, where hearty vines on steep hillsides produced dark grapes capable of producing big wines appropriate for the palates of the English consumer. But the task of exploiting the region was formidable. First, the grapes had to be plucked from vineyards that are literally steeper than the Highlands Bowl. Then, because of the oppressive heat in the valley (This was before cooling came to the modern world), the grapes had to be transported to the milder climate of the coast to be made into wines. This required the harvested grapes to be shipped down the dangerous Douro River in flat-bottom boats called “rabelos.”
Once they made it to the coastal town of Oporto, the birthplace and still the home of porto, the wines were processed and aged prior to being shipped north across the Atlantic back home to London. To keep these wines from spoiling, a small amount of brandy was added to the barrels of wine, which stopped the fermentation while also increasing the wine’s strength.
To this day, English merchants — such as Warre, Taylor-Fladgate, Graham, Croft and Sandeman — still dominate the Port business, and the banks of the river that flows through Oporto are lined with the “port lodges,” as the wineries and tasting rooms are called. Also to this day, the wines of the region are fortified, not to protect them from spoilage during transit, but rather to give them that special flavor that has come to be identified with porto and to help them age with stability.
There are a number of different styles of port, ranging from light white port, made with white grapes, to the dark red, tannic, vintage port, which designates those wines produced from grapes grown in a single year.
A tawny port is a port that has been aged in oak barrels for an extended period of time. It is the oak that makes it a tawny and separates it from ruby ports — those that spend a minimal amount of time in oak and are then placed in the bottle for consumption at a young age — and vintage ports that are aged for an extended time in bottles.
Tawny port, aged in oak, comes in contact with oxygen while in the barrels, which has the effect of changing the color of the wine to the brownish, orangish, amber color that we saw in the glass of Graham’s.
A tawny will spend at least two years in the barrel, but there are also aged tawny ports. There are, officially, 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year tawny ports, which refers to the age the wines spent “in wood,” not the year of the vintage.
There are, in fact, single-vintage tawny ports, as well. These are called “colheitas” and, while they may have been aged for 20 years or more, display the year of the vintage on the label, rather than the time in oak.
In Portugal and the Douro, there is a strong movement toward the production of still wines, as well. In fact, the production of still wines is larger than the production of port. But port is making a comeback, as a younger generation of drinkers are coming back to the joy of the after-dinner drink.
May I suggest figs and cheese as an accompaniment?
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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