It’s said that fruit-driven Vintage Ports reflect the vintage conditions and aged Tawnys reflect the Port House style which is a complex blend of wines from different vintages. The House style can be drier than sweeter, or fruity vs. complex. It is up to the winemaker to determine how to achieve the House style using a mix of grapes and vineyard locations, a range of vat sizes, a vast inventory of existing blends and vintage wines, and a blending philosophy.
Graham’s House style, for example, is rich and sweet, while Warre’s is fresher with floral notes. Dow and Cockburn tend to be drier, as is Churchill, which has about 80 grams per liter residual sugar in its Ports.
Fernando Oliveira, Master Blender at Sogevinus, said that Tawny styles are the most exported Port wines in the last 7-8 years. In the U.S., according to Pedro Pocas Pintao of Pocas, Tawny sales are on the rise because House styles are easier for consumers to understand than the nuances of individual vintage conditions for Vintage Ports. He said they’re also easier to drink since Tawnys can be served chilled.
A Confident approach
Winemaker and Ramos Pinto descendent Joao Almeida thinks that Tawnys require more human effort to make and sometimes gets lost in the drama when Vintage Ports are released. In working with House inventories, Almeida is constantly evaluating whether the different wines “want to take a walk” or are “ready to get married.”
But when the time comes to blend, Almeida is nimble like an athlete. Comparing the process to golf, he says deciding on the blend is like taking the backswing slowly but then in execution, he follows through on the attack without hesitation.
Variety of techniques
Typically, Tawny Ports are aged in smaller wood casks such as 550 liter pipes to accelerate oxidation while large balseiros vats are used to slow aging in fruity Ruby Ports. But every producer has their own protocol, leading to very distinct House styles.
Carlos Flores of J.H. Andresen, a Tawny specialist, says that it’s important to use a diverse mix of vat sizes to age the wines. They use wood casks as small as 25 liters for faster evolution to 100,000 liter upright vats to slow oxidation and preserve fruit. They skillfully assess the potential of each wine going into these vats as to how they will age, and then blend a few months before bottling to achieve the House style.
To help maintain the House style for age-dated Tawnys, Flores says that they always keep aside a small amount of the final blend to use in the next bottling for consistency- not unlike fractional blending used in a Sherry solera.