In out last article on wine travel adventures in Portugal, we concluded as we sat in comfortable arm chairs in a private area of the Graham’s tasting room in Vila Nova de Gaia, gazing out a floor to ceiling picture window looking at the Douro River and the City of Porto. In front of us were three bottles and our tasting glasses of four year old Ruby Port and Ten and Twenty year old Tawny Port.
The names Ruby and Tawny are simply descriptive names based on the color of the wine, which in turn is a factor of the age of the Port. Ruby is always a younger wine, retaining more of its natural color (a ruby red), and sweet fruity characteristics from the grapes. Tawny Port has always aged longer in the barrels, and the color fades to a brownish, “tawny” color as the wine matures. As it ages, it develops more complexity and becomes less sweet.
In wine tasting one generally proceeds from white to red, with sweet dessert wines at the end. In Port tasting, one proceeds from youngest to oldest. While the four year old Ruby was tasty, enhanced no doubt by the surroundings and the fact of being on vacation, the benefits of aging became immediately apparent as the first sip of ten year old tawny rolled around my mouth. Just as one smells the bouquet of the wine in a standard tasting, one can smell the age (as well as bouquet) when tasting port.
Graham's 40 Year Old Tawny Port
The difference between the four year old Ruby and the ten year old Tawny was enormous, and a similar leap in structure and complexity was readily apparent when moving from the ten to twenty year old Tawny. The unpracticed nose might not be able to accurately determine whether one is tasting a ten or twenty year old bottling, but it is certainly possible distinguish that one is older than another, just by the aroma, and without looking at the color.
Ruby Port is aged in immense wooden vats (Balseiros) holding thousands of litres. Balseiros are utilized for aging wines when the producer wants to minimize the effects of the wood and micro-oxygenation by having less wine in contact with the wood or exposed to the effects of the air through the wood of oak aging casks. Tawny Port is aged in familiar size wooden barrels. Graham’s Port for sale included a 1980 Vintage Port for 196€, and a 1952 Colheita for 330€. Colheita simply means harvest, in this case a harvest from 65 years ago. A Colheita is a dated tawny of a single vintage and is the rarest of all ports based on quantity produced.
After leisurely evaluating and consuming our three samples in the main tasting room, we moved just down the hall to Graham’s Vintage Room for additional tasting and education. The Vintage Room was decorated with dark wood paneling, leather armchairs, old prints, books and paintings, and a tasting bar. Reminiscent of a Victorian sitting room or library, the Vintage Room possessed character and atmosphere, and was immediately comfortable. Here, Vasco, the Vintage Room host proceeded to pour me a tasting of a 1983 Vintage Port and to further my Port education from A to Z.
Don Nunn, Tasting 1983 Vintage Port
Vintage Port must be decanted (as it will contain natural sediments) and drunk in two to three days (a week at the most), or it will turn to vinegar. As I drifted dreamily into the past with my 1983 Vintage, listening to Vasco’s informative discussion, I joked that the required drinking in two to three days was not a difficult proposition to swallow (attempt at dry humor here!).
While all port is fortified with the addition of aguardente, a distilled grape spirit, thus arresting further fermentation and preserving the wine’s natural sugars and sweetness, non-vintage Ruby and Tawny follow an entirely different aging process from vintage port, and are filtered when bottled.
Ruby Port is bottled young and ready for immediate enjoyment. Tawny, as we have mentioned may age for a very long time indeed. In order to be labeled 10, 20, or 30 year old, the average age of the wine must be of the specified age. It is blended with wines that are both younger and older, but the average age is the determining factor for purposes of labeling. The fortification process was initially developed primarily to preserve the quality of the wine during the time necessary to ship it to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Graham's Port Lodge
As non-vintage port continues to age in the barrel (at Graham’s French Oak is utilized), its maturation is affected by continued oxidation and the flavors absorbed from the wood. All non-vintage Ports may be open for months without going bad, the older, the longer. Late-bottled vintage, single quinta vintage and white ports represent still more styles of port that we do not have space to explore in this article. Once again, the more one learns about a particular subject, the more there is remaining to be learned.
Wrapping up our exquisite experience at Graham’s, Vasco advised that Graham’s has a Tawny Port from 1882 that is still aging. Finishing the visit at the Graham’s retail shop, I was understandably unable to resist purchasing a 40 year old Tawny for €119. One certainly would not be able to touch a mid-70s Bordeaux or Burgundy for that price. To me, the anticipation of uncorking an out of the ordinary purchase for an as yet to be determined special occasion is a big part of the appreciation of that special purchase. Until then, it rests comfortably in the company of a few other special bottles of wine.
Douro River at Sunset
Already in the north of Portugal, in our next installment we continue an easy hour to the northeast to Guimarães, to a former convent converted into a magnificent hilltop hotel with commanding views over the town and surrounding countryside.