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Tawny Port vs. Vintage Port: What Enthusiasts Need to Know

“Port may evolve in many different ways,” says Cristiano van Zeller during a tour of his Quinta Vale D. Maria property

Taking your first step into any new spirits or wine category requires a great deal of learning. Of course, that type of hard work is best done with a glass in hand for tasting purposes. But beyond the experiential side of things, basic questions can be cleared up to help set you down the right path. When it comes to Port, one of the key factors then is the difference between Tawny Port and Vintage Port.

Port may evolve in many different ways

The Basics

To produce Port, the fermentation process of a wine is cut off via the addition of grape Brandy at a strength of 77% ABV (Alcohol By Volume). This is generally an unaged, neutral grape spirit, but specific flavors or qualities could be sought out as well. The higher alcohol strength kills off the yeast and therefore stops the ferment right where it is, leaving lingering unfermented sugars while providing the boost of fortification, eventually yielding a wine of about 20% ABV.

Cristiano van Zeller, during a tour of his Quinta Vale D. Maria property.
Cristiano van Zeller, during a tour of his Quinta Vale D. Maria property.

The resulting fortified wine is then left to rest, and this is where the production can turn in one direction or the other. “Port may evolve in many different ways,” says Cristiano van Zeller of Van Zellers & Co., during a tour of his Quinta Vale D. Maria property.

A Port destined to become Vintage Port heads to large vats, which could be anywhere from 2,000 liters to 20,000 liters in size, or more. It’ll remain there for two years before being bottled. The Port isn’t finished there, though. It’s made to continue maturing in that bottle—potentially for decades more.

Vintage Port is the crown jewel, the rarity

Rich, Rare & Red, A Guide to Port by Ben Howkins
Rich, Rare & Red, A Guide to Port by Ben Howkins

“Vintage Port has these two great moments of enjoyment,” says Ben Howkins, author of Rich, Rare & Red: A Guide to Port, now in its fourth edition. The first is when it’s very young and fresh, although that’s not what it’s truly meant for. The next is after 15 to 20 years, “when it is what it is supposed to be, in all its power,” Howkins says. Still, that Vintage Port can continue its work, a “slow evolution,” for another half-century in the bottle.

“Vintage Port is the crown jewel, the rarity,” says Francisca van Zeller, Cristiano’s daughter who’s involved in the family business herself. A vintage release has to first be declared by a producer, and then has to be tasted and approved by a commission before being officially dubbed as such. Only a tiny fraction of Port goes on to become Vintage Port.

Cristiano Zeller and his daughter Fransisca Zeller
Cristiano Zeller and his daughter Fransisca Zeller

Tawny Port, on the other hand, doesn’t go from large vats to bottles, but instead spends its time maturing in wooden casks, generally 550 liters in size. As the Port ages and evaporates, casks are “topped up” with fresh Brandy, in tiny quantities at a time, making up for lost alcohol while also maintaining an element of bright, fresh flavor. It’s aged for a minimum of eight years and is generally released in decades-long intervals, e.g., at 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and so forth.

Tawny Port spends its time maturing in wooden casks

Tawny Port spends its time maturing in wooden casks
Tawny Port spends its time maturing in wooden casks

Blending and Playing Music

“The essence of Port is blending,” Cristiano explains. Blending grape varietals, blending together grapes from different vineyards, from different subregions, and, in many cases, from across different years of production.

“From there you play music,” Francisca says, referring to the blending process. That music is never a solo instrumental, either. But rather, an orchestra, requiring what often amounts to centuries of built-up expertise, carefully honed and passed to the next generation.

“In no circumstances is Port made alone,” Cristiano says. “Especially in the tasting room, that’s the crucial place. The accumulated experience of generations makes great works of art in terms of Port. The crucial point of every Port company is being able to pass along those sensory memories… and we all have our little secrets, too.”

Vale D. Maria
Vale D. Maria

In terms of comparing taste and structure, Howkins compares Vintage Port to Cabernet Sauvignon wine, while Tawny Port he compares to Pinot Noir, “elegant, lighter, softer, more fragrant, nuanced,” he says.

Beyond that, what you’ll find with Tawny is that thanks to its lengthy cask maturation it undergoes hefty oxidative aging while picking up characteristics of the oak. Therefore, well-aged Tawny Port is a natural choice for the Whiskey or Cognac drinker who’s looking to get started in the category.

There are a few additional points to consider

While we’ve hashed out the macro differences between Tawny and Vintage Ports, there are a few additional points to consider:

  • First is that the given age of a Port doesn’t refer to either the oldest or youngest Port in the batch. It’s closer to an average, but more accurately, is a perceptive age of how old that Port tastes and appears.
  • Next is that Tawny Ports can actually hail from a single-year vintage, too. Enter the Colheita, which is Tawny Port from a single vintage.

The Emergence of Tawny

While the bulk of sales and production has always been Tawny Port, the most prized has always been Vintage Port. A slight shift has occurred though, with rare Tawny of the highest quality becoming a more prominent selection.

Colheita Port 1871 Quinta de Loureiro
Colheita Port 1871 Quinta de Loureiro

“The market was demanding more and better Tawny ports,” Howkins says, who also says he believes that’s the future of the category as well. “Which is a huge change. We’re launching at the right moment.”

The we he’s talking of is The Last Drop, a company self-described as the “antique dealer of the spirits world” and also as “rare spirits hunters.” Howkins serves as a director with the company, and the launch he’s talking of is The Centenario Port Duo, featuring an 1870 and 1970 Tawny Port. From single-vintage years, these rare Tawny Ports are therefore both Colheitas and will be offered as a set with 770 pairs released globally, due out in spring 2018. A worthy splurge indeed, if you can handle the $5,000-plus price tag.

“These two wines come from the same family and same vineyards,” Cristiano explains. It was he who tracked down the old casks used for the release, eventually partnering with The Last Drop. There are 22,000 such potential farmers in the region, and relationships and proven track records are therefore crucial. “This is one I’ve known for generations and generations.”

Whichever direction you go in, you’ll soon come to appreciate the complexity and quality of Port

You may or may not be in the market for an epic, exclusive, and absurdly old pair of Ports, but even if not, if you’re dabbling at home, you may first want to venture into the domain of Tawny. “The market is opening for Tawny Ports in a very major way,” Howkins says. One side of that is the aforementioned flavor profile. But also consider that Tawny Ports eliminate the guesswork of when and how you should be enjoying it.

Old Vintage Port bottles
Old Vintage Port bottles

“With Vintage Ports, you have to worry about when you open it,” Howkins says of the variety, which is made to continue aging in the bottle. “It’s quite a different animal, and it doesn’t last as long as it would if it had been kept in wood.” Besides a short shelf life after opening, though, there’s the matter of storage and temperature of storage, decanting, when and how best to open and enjoy it, and much more.

Whichever direction you go in, you’ll soon come to appreciate the complexity and quality of Port, while also coming to the realization that there’s always more to learn. And more to try.

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Written by Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a spirits and lifestyle writer currently based in Washington, D.C. His drinks coverage has been published in Whisky Advocate, Liquor.com, Vice Munchies, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, Washington Post Express, Distiller, Roads & Kingdoms, and a range of other outlets. He also runs his own site, ManTalkFood.com, and can be followed on Twitter, @ManTalkFood.

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