With winter coming to an end, it’s tempting to think that Port season will follow suit. After all, who wants to drink rich fortified wines as the temperatures begin their inevitable climb? The time has arrived, popular logic goes, to start finishing up any bottles of Port you’ve opened up during the past several months and begin thinking about other stickies to enjoy after dinner.
This, of course, could not be further from the truth. And while most people think of Port as a cold-weather warmer, a tipple to be enjoyed, say, by a fireplace, with a cigar or a nice ripe block of blue cheese, its utility stretches on throughout the year.
I realized this two years ago during a springtime trip to southern Portugal—not exactly the chilliest place on the planet. And though I drank more Vinho Verde than I ever had before—enjoyed alongside a plate of grilled sardines, it has to rank as one of the great pairings you can possibly experience—nearly every meal there ended with a glass of Port, even on the warmest days.
Allowing the weather to influence your wine selection is a common practice and an excellent strategy, but to pop or not to pop a cork because of the season inevitably results in missing out on some truly great wines. Rich, viscous young syrah may not be the first thing you think of reaching for in August, but with a dinner of slowly smoked beef from the grill, there are few better pairing partners.
Of course, not all wines are created equal; this goes for stickies just as it does dry reds and whites. And though there are certain rules of production that all Ports must follow, there is tremendous variety in terms of sweetness, viscosity, nuance, and overall character. And then there is the issue of whether you prefer vintage, late bottled vintage, tawny, crusted, or ruby Port: The differences in style are huge, and the perfect occasion for one may be far from it for another.
Recently, I had the opportunity to taste a range of aged tawny Ports from Dow’s, one of the great houses of the region. Each bottling—ranging in age from 10 to 40 years old—represents not only the longevity of these extraordinary wines, but also the way in which years of aging in oak barrels affects the finished product in the bottle. And among the oldest of them, there is the added—and admittedly non-wine-related—benefit of knowing just what these wines have seen, how the world has changed since the fruit was harvested. Wine, after all, is about emotion just as much as it is sensory perception.
The following are my tasting notes for these exceptional wines.
Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny – Aromas of pecans and hazelnuts are balanced beautifully by a surprisingly fresh fruitiness and a barrel character that adds seasoning without overwhelming. This is a Port of remarkable structure, its body lighter than you might expect, though without sacrificing any sense of richness. The mid-palate shows both flowers and toffee, and the finish ends on a pleasantly bitter almond note. Delicious and almost dangerously drinkable.
Dow’s 20 Year Old Port – The nose here is much more dramatic, more exotic, than its 10-year-old counterpart, both spicier and possessed of greater density. And, despite the more obvious vanilla and alcohol, it still maintains a real sense of freshness, which is remarkable for a tawny this old. The nutty finish and bolder complexity make this both a perfect digestif and a steal for the price.
Dow’s 30 year Old Tawny Port – Cardamom and sweet tobacco are carried along a nose than can only be described as silky in its subtlety and elegance. This is a Port for contemplation, with warm brown sugar, grilled fruit, dried herbs, and earth all adding a fabulous sense of dimension and depth to the palate.
Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port – The fact that this tawny still maintains a lively zip of acid and freshness is remarkable. So, too, is the sense that it is a completely unified whole, with spice and fruit and darker, deeper flavors in perfect balance. The overriding characteristic here is one of gently spiced caramel, but there’s so much more going on that you’ll need at least an entire glass—and maybe two—to parse it all. Call it the T.S. Eliot of Port: It demands rapt attention, but the work is more than rewarded in the end.
Despite the differences between these four Ports, two things, above all else, unify them: Their complexity and endless well of nuance, as well as their freshness. And for Ports that you plan on drinking throughout the year, there’s nothing more you could ask for.
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and consultant. He is also Editorial Director of ClassicWines.com, host of the Internet video series The Classic Wines Minute, and Director of Wine Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia. For more information, please www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.