It may take forty years to make but you can find dessert in a glass

Photo by David Kitai

Port is the epitome of old-school wine drinking. The stuff was invented to better survive the long sea voyage from Portugal to Britain. The idea of casks of sweet fortified wine carried in tall ships to the clubs and stately homes of 18th-century England isn’t exactly progressive. But that certainly doesn’t mean Port can’t be fantastic. At the Vancouver International Wine Festival, a tasting of Tawny Ports highlighted the joy of these wines past their stolid image.

Port wine comes from the Douro river valley in Northern Portugal. The style was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries to feed the growing thirst of the British market. Because the wine would often go bad on the trip to London, Port houses began adding a neutral grape spirit, called aguardiente, during fermentation. The result was a sweet wine at around 17 per cent alcohol, stable enough to survive travel, but robust and sweet enough to satisfy English palates of the period. Seeking fortune in the Port business, a number of English families moved to Northern Portugal, setting up in the city of Oporto, from which the wine derives its name. At the Vancouver wine festival a scion of one of those families, Rupert Symington, walked us through the style of port gaining the most attention right now: Tawny.

Tawny ports, unlike other styles, undergo a long process of barrel ageing. Graham’s Tawny Ports, the line being shown by Symington, are aged in ancient barrels that impart no flavour to the wine. The barrels are porous, letting the wine evaporate by a rate of about 2% per year. That evaporated wine is replaced by air, which gradually oxidizes the Port. Because of the high alcohol, the wine doesn’t turn to vinegar, instead, it gradually turns from deep red to amber-brown and develops layers of complex, caramelized, honeyed, and nutty flavours.

Symington’s tasting was built around four key ages of his ports: ten, twenty, thirty, and forty years old. We began, though, with an unaged Ruby Port, acting as a baseline. Opaque and inky-purple, the wine was pleasantly rustic and deep, if a little young and astringent.

The ten-year-old showed how different a beast tawny port can be. Where the ruby was all cooked jammy fruit, the ten year was like rich maple syrup. Still, it felt a little rough and underdeveloped. The true joy came from the older glasses.

The twenty year was my unexpected favourite. The nose was more richly honeyed with layers of caramel. The palate was hugely rich and dense, with a gorgeous sweetness that managed not to be cloying. Despite its considerable age, the wine still had a sharp acidity keeping it structured.

At this point in the tasting, Symington began waxing lyrical on the food-friendliness of these wines. The obvious, even perfect, pairing for these is creme brulee. Yet when the audience pressed him for more suggestions, he couldn’t come up with much more than roasted nuts. These wines were gorgeous, to be sure. As Symington even said, “they’re a dessert in and of themselves.” But I didn’t come away thinking of Tawny Port as my ideal food wine.

The thirty and forty-year-olds got gradually more savoury on the nose. More flavours of tobacco, leather, even grilled meats coming through past the fruit. Both wines were strikingly light and lively, offering a tension I didn’t expect from their age.

The most original wines on offer were the colheitas, wines bottled from a single year, rather than blended between years. The 1972, now fast running out, and 1994, just now being released, were both offered. Each brought its own particular joy, but the 1994 conveyed a spiciness unlike any of the other wines.

Tawny Port isn’t necessarily the cheapest drink on the market. But the high alcohol and long exposure to oxygen means a bottle can sit out for weeks without starting to go off. Even if it’s not the Graham’s 20-year old, I would recommend keeping a bottle of something decent on hand, just for those evenings when a glass of dessert is the perfect nightcap.