A few years ago, I participated in a tasting of tawny port wines and chocolates. The intense aromas and flavors of the tawny ports and the decadent pleasure of the chocolates were incongruous with the antiseptic atmosphere of the convention center in Portugal where it took place. But the impact on my palate, and the pleasure sensors in my brain, made a lasting impression. The mood of Valentine’s Day will elevate the hedonism of this pairing.

Port wine originated in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Its name derives from the city of Oporto, from where it was shipped to England, Germany, Holland, and other European countries beginning in the 17th century. Today, the European Union protects the name Port within Europe, but it is unable to enforce that regulation on wineries in America, South Africa, Australia, and other parts of the world that put Port on the label of their sticky sweet wines.

Port is divided between ruby and tawny. At its simplest, rubies are ports that develop in the bottle; tawnies are ports that develop in the barrel. Tawnies gained their name by losing their color. Once red, the wine gradually relinquishes its hue by aging in barrels. The best tawnies are those that are labeled 10, 20, 30, and more than 40 years-old. These are made from the best grapes, often from the best vintages. There is a basic tawny port, about three years old, made from inferior grapes and, at times, blended with white port. This tawny is best avoided.

SDC10122.JPGFor the aged tawnies, it doesn’t mean that the wine in the bottle is precisely 10, 20, 30, or more than 40 years old. As the tawny wine is aging, it is also replenished for wine sold, and the amount naturally evaporating in the barrels. What the years designate is that the wine has the aroma, flavor, and color of its indicated age. The designation is given by the Institute of Port Wine after it inspects the Port house’s samples of their aged tawny wines. 
SDC10076.JPGSome of my favorite tawnies come from Sandeman, Taylor, and Fonseca Port companies, the latter two of which are owned by the Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman company. During a visit to Taylor last September, I tasted the range of Taylor, Fonseca, and its Croft tawny ports. I updated them with another tasting last week alongside all the tawny ports from Sandeman. Next to my glass were some chocolates, too.

10-Year Old Tawnies: Burnt orange is the predominate color of all four tawnies, all in the $30 price range; pronounced strawberry and cinnamon rise from the glasses of Fonseca, Taylor, and Croft. The trio have robust fruit flavors with noticeable alcohol on the palate. The well-made Sandeman’s style is lighter and more restrained in aroma, flavor, and length. These tawnies are best with candies filled with fruit liquors, chocolate-covered strawberries, and chocolate orange rind.

20-Year Old Tawnies: Fonseca, Taylor, and Sandeman are in this age group, all in the $55 price range. The color is more transparent than the 10-year old and evolved into copper and bronze shades. The youthful rambunctiousness of Fonseca and Taylor has transformed into soy, walnut, and mild red fruit aromas and flavors. Sandeman offers mellow fruit flavors from the scent to the sip. Fonseca and Sandeman remind your palate that 20 percent alcohol is occupying a place. This trio is delightful with milk chocolates, chocolate truffles, and white chocolate candies.

30-Year Old Tawnies: A duo tasting of Taylor ($115) and Sandeman ($85) show wines completely transparent with an onion skin shade. Almond aroma drifts from the Sandeman glass; its refined honey texture and flavor is immensely appealing. Every aspect of the wine is integrated. Taylor seems to have lost a bit of balance with age, as the alcohol and the mild fig flavor are disjointed. It’s enjoyable, but the Sandeman 30-year old is a palate ballerina. This duo cries for dark chocolate with hazelnuts; dark chocolate caramels; and dried apricots and pears.

40-Year Old Tawnies: Taylor ($200) and Sandeman ($150) are amber and sheer. Time has replaced the boisterous fruit aromas and flavors with caramel, honey, and nut aromas and flavors. Each has its style of quietness: Taylor’s is mellow toffee, and sugar coated walnuts. Sandeman turns toward honey and figs; it excites the nose and coats the palate. Forty is an age for contemplation and sipping the Taylor or Sandeman with chocolate butter creams, pralines, and chocolate hazelnut candies will have you reflecting on this perfection.

Opened Bottles of Tawny Port
Consuming a full bottle of aged tawny port requires at least six people. Because port is a fortified wine you can open it for just a glass or two and still enjoy it days ahead. Reseal the bottle with its stopper-like cork and return it to your wine cellar or cooler. Lacking one of those, place the bottle in a cool, dark space. In either location, the bottle of aged tawny port will be enjoyable for a week or two. Another method is to transfer the remaining port to a half-bottle as this will reduce the amount of air that the wine is exposed to, which is the enemy of wine preservation.

Buying Aged Tawny Port:
Examine the labels on the bottle for the date the wine was bottled. You want to purchase a tawny port that was bottled within the last three to four years. Longer than that, the wine may have lost some of its freshness from sitting in a warm, brightly lit retail shop, or distributor’s warehouse.