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Trendy Tawny

Lesser-known than their ruby cousins, these barrel-aged Ports are grabbing attention thanks to high-quality bottlings

Luis Antunes
Posted: January 27, 2014

Tawny Ports, long a less popular sibling of their ruby cousins, are gaining new attention. Seeing potential in the category, top Port houses are producing high-quality, long-aged tawnies and marketing them to American and U.K. consumers.

Port comes in several categories, so many that the wine always requires explanation to newbies. But most Port wine fans know of two main types—rubies and tawnies. Rubies are bottled early in their life, preserving color and tannins, and evolve slowly in their glass cage. Tawnies age in wood vats, allowed some oxygen contact, losing their color fast but gaining a softer texture and nuances of dried fruits, honey and iodine.

In terms of markets, top-end rubies such as Vintage Ports and LBVs have always held the spotlight in countries like the United States or the U.K., whereas tawnies were more popular in Portugal. But the outstanding 1994 vintage shifted Portuguese attention to rubies too, and since then, the Port business has endured hard times, with declining domestic sales of tawnies playing a role, even while the top ruby wines remained highly sought.

But recently, some of the major houses started to look at tawnies differently and began investing. In December 2010, the Fladgate Partnership issued Scion, a very old tawny Port (1855) found in a farmer’s lodge in the Douro Valley. Expensively packaged and priced accordingly, this luxury tawny was marketed to make an impact. It was the right time to catch everyone’s attention, and the fact that it was branded Taylor’s, widely known for impeccable quality in Vintage Ports, also helped. Fladgate made another important move toward quality tawnies when it recently acquired Wiese & Krohn and announced plans to use the old house's stock of 1 million liters of fine aged tawny to release a Taylor’s Colheita with 50 years of age every year.

The Symington group has made a similar bet. Usually very strong in all the special categories, including 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-plus-year-old tawnies, and occasionally releasing single-harvest tawnies (their name for Colheitas), Symington has always kept a good deal of old tawny in their cellars. According to Paul Symington, the group’s CEO, their stock totals 16,500 casks or more than 9 million liters. That means plenty of raw materials to use in releases like Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny 1961, which was followed by siblings 1969, 1952 and 1982. Other brands such as Dow’s or Warre’s have followed this pattern.

"The world changes, formal dinners are seldom given, and Port producers have to adapt," said Symington. "Tawnies have an enormous advantage over top rubies. They allow unprepared consumption, since they don’t need lengthy upright standing or decanting. And the bottles can be kept for some weeks after opening.”

Symington praised his colleagues from Fladgate for raising the bar on special tawnies. There had been great quality Ports before, sold at really high prices. He added that these tawnies don’t really compete with Vintage Ports—they have a different market and different consumption patterns.

Following the success of Scion, several other producers have released very old top-end tawnies, at stratospheric prices: Quinta do Vallado released Tributa, Wine&Soul (of Pintas fame) issued their 5G and Niepoort bottled another version of their VV. Historic producer Quinta do Noval may soon release their own. The winery's exclusive 6-acre Nacional vineyard of ungrafted vines has produced some of their most exciting and deep Vintage Ports. In lesser vintages, the juice from those same vines has contributed to the Over 40 Years Old Tawny. António Agrellos, chief winemaker, and Christian Seely, CEO of the AXA Millésimes-owned estate, recently announced that the range of Quinta do Noval Colheitas will be expanded to include a Colheita Nacional, from the same ungrafted vines. Years such as 1998 and 2002, never released or bottled as Vintage Port, may be the first new releases.

The new trend of high-end tawnies seems to support such a move. “After 20 years of AXA management, we were able to build a pyramid of old tawnies with enough quantity," said Agrellos. "Although a Colheita can be released seven years after the harvest, we usually release it with far more.”

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