Julian Hitner reports on the greatest tawny port lineup ever presented in WineAlign’s newly refurbished tasting room, courtesy of Stephen Marentette of Sylvestre Wines & Spirits. Several of these wines (including an astonishing bottling from 1863!) have already been released through VINTAGES, with one or two on the way (click on the links below for exact dates).
The Art of Tawny Port
by Julian Hitner
In port circles, few establishments are as universally revered as Taylor Fladgate, its roots dating back more than three hundred years. Quality is an obsession here, from the choicest bottle-aged (vintage) versions to those kept in wood (such as Late Bottled Vintage) for only a short period of time. But what of those aged in barrel for ten years or longer, those ‘tawnies’ one hears so much about? Back in 1973, when the Instituto dos Vinho do Porto (IVP) created new rules permitting producers to state the age of older tawny ports on the label, Taylor’s found itself in an enviable position. Having spent decades developing stocks of fortified wines aged for many years in wood, it became the first major house to launch a full range of tawnies in increments of 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Over forty years later, these versions have emerged as some of the most enticing, most consistent wines of their kind in the Douro.
Needless to say, their ‘ruby’ counterparts are entirely different. Aside from much fiercer tannins, deeper colours and totally dissimilar flavours, the finest rubies are largely crafted with bottle aging in mind. Vintage versions are at the top of the pyramid, crafted from the best grapes and only aged for roughly two years in wood and subsequently sold to private buyers for decades of further maturation. Other types, such as Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), are kept in barrel for around four to six years to make them approachable on release. Wines labelled simply as ‘Ruby’ are the cheapest, crafted from the lowest quality grapes and aged very minimally. There are several other types of ruby port, each worthy of exploration.
By comparison, tawny ports are aged for much longer periods in wood for a much lighter colour (one can easily guess which one) and more nut- and fruitcake-oriented flavours. Wines simply labelled as ‘Tawny’ are the most plebeian, and do not state any period of barrel aging on the label. Taylor’s Fine Tawny (not tasted) is just such a wine. Continuing with Fladgate, this is followed by the 10 Year Old, usually the freshest and most approachable of the above-mentioned quartet. In contrast, the aristocratic 20 Year Old is a much more serious offering, possessing deeper flavours and more concentration. This seems to be the premium tawny of choice for the widest number of connoisseurs. However, for those with very deep pockets, the princely 30 Year Old is a singular favourite, likely on account of its inherent richness, prodigious complexity and overall sense of completeness. The imperial 40 Year Old, on the other hand, is almost an entirely different proposition, produced in very small quantities and possessing unparalleled concentration, luxuriousness and exoticism. Tasted side-by-side, the 30 Year Old appears much fresher and mellower, while its senior, ritzier counterpart seems a weighty titan, basking in immortal opulence and pedigree. Each of these tawnies are among the greatest in Portugal, blended from multiple vintages with the youngest being the stated age on the label.
A short time ago, the ante for such wines was upped even further with Taylor’s introduction of its 1964 Single Harvest Port. Bottled this year, fifty-year-old tawnies from a specific vintage are beyond rare, though younger single-vintage versions known as ‘Colheita’ are produced at many houses. Such wines are usually extremely well made and delicious, particularly those up to twenty years of age. Yet Taylor’s half-century-old bottling (priced at $299.95 in VINTAGES), which it plans on producing every year from now on, is something truly unique, slightly Madeira-like and a good deal sweeter. It is certainly the greatest Colheita (though this term is not used on the label) I have tasted to date.
At least from the twentieth century. Leave it to Taylor’s to lay its hands on a few casks of mid-nineteenth-century fortified wine from a single vintage and then bottle it. Indeed, the firm’s 1863 Single Harvest Port is likely to be celebrated as one of most spellbinding, most miraculous tawnies in modern times. Divvied out into 1,600 gorgeous crystal decanters placed in luxury boxes of maple burl veneer (fetching $3,995 in VINTAGES), it almost reminds one of a super-premium Cognac, at the same time extraordinarily spice-oriented and mouth-filling. Crafted from pre-phylloxera grapes, it is unquestionably the most unique port wine, ruby or tawny, I have ever been privileged to examine. At the house of Fladgate, only the best seems to do.
The tawny ports of Taylor Fladgate:
Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port may generally be considered the gold standard for tawnies of this age group, crafted with obvious care and attention to detail. The freshest and most fruit-driven of the range yet by no means simplistic, this may be enjoyed with almost carefree abandon.
Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port has always been a favourite of mine, and recent batches have never been better. Compared to the 10 Year Old, this is a more serious wine, possessing outstanding body, harmony and style. It certainly merits all the laurels it consistently receives.
Taylor Fladgate 30 Year Old Tawny Port has always seemed the most ‘complete’ of the age-stated quartet, delivering substantial concentration, purity and harmony. More than double the cost of the 20 Year Old, collectors have every right to expect great things from such a wine. I have never once been disappointed.
Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny Port is easily the most decadent, most enticing wine of this genre. Like its counterparts, it is a blend of multiple vintages, the youngest being the stated age on the label. This means some extremely old vintages were blended into this, with stupendous results.
Taylor Fladgate 1964 Single Harvest Port delivers unbelievable character, style and harmony. Hailing from a single vintage, it has very little in common with even the 40 Year Old, possessing remarkable Madeira-like characteristics and sweeter flavours on the palate. A true original in more ways than one.
Taylor Fladgate 1863 Single Harvest Port is in a class of its own, possessing more in common with a fine Cognac (particularly on the nose) than with a fortified wine. Featuring astounding intensity, harmony, structure, elegance and length, this is one of the true originals of the winegrowing world. Pity that so few persons will ever have an opportunity to taste it.
Click here for Julian’s list of recommended port wines
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