by Peter Wood

I’m getting old. A couple of months ago I went to get a routine eye test and my optician informed me that while my sight hadn’t deteriorated, my eye reaction time had and that was a sign of me “getting old”. Not exactly the ego boosting opinion I might have been seeking, but I’d be kidding myself if I hadn’t already noticed the ravages of time starting to inflict their will upon me, but I suspect I was ignoring them. When I get my hair cut, I see more grey than brown. When I wake up, there is more of a reluctance to leave my bed. But the thing that should have really drawn my attention to my progression to my ultimate demise is the fact that my port tastes are changing. 

When I started on my wine journey, Port was my first love. I was won over to this fortified wine from the Douro valley by old vintage wines from the British named port shippers – Dow’s, Taylors and, my favourite, Graham’s. Their rich, berry laden flavours, with rich spicy characters and a warmed compote like booziness engraved this type of wine on my heart. But in recent years I’ve noticed my palate is changing and I’m liking the tawny styles of port much, much more.

The main difference between the two styles is simple. Tawny ports have been kept in barrel for longer, so are more dried fruit, spice, leathery flavoured wines, whereas the red ports that are always bought are in barrel for a short time, retaining all their bold, blackberry, blueberry jammy flavours. Both are delicious, don’t get me wrong, but as I progress along the road to my eventual demise, I find myself moving to the barrel aged wines, and I think you should follow my lead and move to Tawnies too. Here are a few reasons why.

1 - Tawnies are just SO much more flexible, to the point where you don’t need any other drink over an entire meal. Start off with Oysters and just pop a drop or two onto them – it gives the oyster an incredible richness – no need for lemons or tabasco here. Then move onto a game terrine for a starter, confit duck or Tartiflet for a main course, then a selection of cheese and finishing up with crème brulee. Every single dish goes perfectly with a tawny port, AND you can even then sit with it after dinner as a digestif!

2 - And then there is the variety. You’ll see standard Tawny ports and then age statement wines; 10 year, 20 year etc. First thing to note is that this is a style of port, not a minimum like with whisky. Having said that, the base wine is usually around that age and then there are usually some older ports put into it. These wines are a wonderful, polished and perfected style that reflects the house style. Some of my favourite ten year olds are Pocas and Royal Oporto – still offering a big of a berry led palate, but with all of those lovely drier flavours coming through.

But it is at the 20 year old where things really get interesting, and house style really comes to the fore. Whether it is the elegance of Quevedo or the drier, sophisticated Royal Oporto, or the slightly showy but delicious Churchills, they are all really exciting and interesting wines to try.

3 – The hidden gems that are Colheitas. Colheitas (pron. Coy-A-tas) are tawny ports from a single harvest, kept in barrel until they are bottled and released. They have to be in barrel for seven years, but some producers have got wine in barrels from the mid nineteenth century. Colheitas will have a bottling date on them telling you how long they were in wood, and it means that you could have two wines that look like they are the same, but because the bottling date may be years apart, they are very different wines.

Colheitas for me are the wines you want to buy, and buy to enjoy now. They are always characterful, always delicious and are so varied. Take Royal Oporto for an example. We have their 1977 Colheita and their 2004. Sure, the ’77 is a wonderful experience, but the 2004 is simply fun with loads of ginger and warmed honey infused with citrus peel. Then there is the 2003 Colheita from Quevedo, delicate, sensual and so pretty you can fall in love with this time and time again.

They give you the opportunity to explore different ages, different houses, compare vintages and do so for the price of a ten year old bottle of single malt. And for that you are getting something that can be drunk up to 6 months after opening so it isn’t as if it must be consumed within days. They may not be perfected like the age statement tawnies, but they offer up so much more interest and character – they are just fun!

So, although my eyes and hair may be giving up on me, there is one benefit of age: wisdom. I may have a wine cellar filled with vintage ports from the great vintage port producers, but where my heart, palate and passion now lies is with these wonderful barrel aged wines that can be drunk all year round. Time to get rid of your single malts after dinner, save yourself a chunk of money, and start drinking Tawny Port.

Peter Wood