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Forty-year-olds are simply more interesting.
This isn’t a new bumper-sticker phrase or a dubious claim from a writer who has (ahem) seen that age come and go. It refers to tawny port—the golden-brown wine that often plays second fiddle to darker vintage port—and the decades it spends sleeping in wood casks, which creates a remarkable number of flavors and aromas. The rare and sought-after 40-year-old fortified wines represent the apogee of the form, full of characteristics that invite contemplation after a meal.
Tawnies generally come in four types: 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year-old. (There are also some single-vintage-dated versions called colheitas.) Those numbers represent the average age of the wines inside; what you drink is usually a bit older. The brown color that gives tawny its name comes from oxidization over time.
Whereas vintage port relies on the immediate winemaking to succeed, tawny is all about blending and is essentially a creation of a cellar master. The blending renders a producer’s house style ever more individual; like people, tawnies come into their own as they age.
“People are discovering the delights of the more sophisticated tawnies,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, the largest producer of tawny port, and the man behind the brands Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca. “In Porto we’ve been in on the secret for years.”
In addition to its beguiling taste, rarity makes 40-year-olds in particular so pricey (generally $100 to $250). All four tawny ages are blended from the same stocks, so the master blend shrinks over the decades as the younger wines are created and bottled and nipped by evaporation. “There aren’t a lot of 40-year-olds out there,” says Rupert Symington, managing director of Symington Family Estates, which produces Dow’s and Graham’s, among others. “It’s shocking how much liquid it takes to make them.”
Port producers started giving tawnies their age definitions in the early 1970s. Restaurants find them particularly useful because they can be opened and recorked without any substantial loss of flavor—something wine lovers can take advantage of at home, too. (You can get a few months out of a tawny if you recork it and put it in the refrigerator.)
The wines are sweet and best served with a slight chill; a cool temperature helps balance the experience. Their flavors vary widely, from caramel to orange peel, and sometimes appear in the same wine. They match well with desserts containing figs or almonds (people frequently cite these flavors when tasting tawnies), as well as medium-intensity cheeses (skip the strong blues). But nothing is required alongside them. Smooth and silky on the palate, they are complex creations that can be enjoyed all by themselves.
Here are some of the top tawnies available today. Even though they can technically endure for months after opening, the wines’ delicious characteristics guarantee they won’t last long.