It must first be mentioned here that Tawny Port, not Vintage Port, is the most popular after dinner wine in Portugal. It is very easy to find excellent Tawny Port all around Portugal, but there is some difficulty in finding top notch VP, especially those from older vintages. That may seem surprising, but from many restaurants to the majority of retail shops, that is definitely the case (the Port Lodges and IVDP not included). Actually you may find the best old VPs at Portugal’s airport gift shops! But I digress, and now comes Tawny time…
Although I used to be a predominantly Vintage Port (VP) aficionado, I certainly appreciate and frequently drink a variety of Tawny Ports, especially Colheitas. There are those folks (many, of the "cigar persuasion" set ) that actually take sides....VP vs. Tawny. Like listening to a heated debate of which heavyweight boxing champion was the all-time greatest, a discussion of which is the BEST style of Port is always an interesting topic. Surely this question has no right or wrong answers...just opinions and varying tastes. But what always intrigues me, is why Porto lovers always tend to appreciate one style far more than the other.
Tawny Port actually starts out like a Ruby Port, but then spends an extended period in wood to soften and round out its character. As the large oak casks or "pipes" are somewhat porous, the oxygen that enters over the years will allow some of the wine to evaporate. This concentrates flavors in the remaining wine and leaves a slight "air gap" at the top of the cask. Like a fine wine in a decanter with increased surface area exposed, the Tawny Port is allowed to oxidize during its time in the oak vessel. Constant racking over the many years the wine is in cask also allows for further oxidation. As this oxidation process takes place, the color of the wine slowly changes from a purplish-red eventually to a tawny or reddish-brown. The more time the Tawny spends in wood the more complex its flavor profile, and the Tawny-er the color becomes.
Unlike VP, Tawny Port is frequently served slightly chilled or even poured over ice. I prefer to drink it at room temperature or just slightly chilled, as I find that pouring Tawny over ice tends to conceal the multi-layered flavors. My season for drinking Vintage Port is October through about September and the rest of the year I also enjoy Tawny time. Tawny is a lighter bodied wine and when chilled just a tad, makes for a wonderful summer beverage. In France, Tawny is served as a very popular aperitif, (millions of cases are sold every year to France) whereas the people in most countries choose to drink it after the meal. But like most wines these days, rules are being broken all the time.
A few of my personal favorite foods to pair with Tawny Port: various dried fruits (especially apricots), crème caramel, walnuts, pear tartlet, bread pudding, rice pudding, strawberries, slightly warmed and drizzled over vanilla ice cream, sharp cheddar cheese, crème brûlée, bittersweet chocolate desserts, and you can say that you heard it here first...but don't laugh until you try this one!!! Figs stuffed with peanut butter and served at room temperature or put in a pre-heated oven for 2 minutes.