Perfect twenty: Tasting and matching 20yo tawny port

18 November 2015

Consistently good, varied in style, flexible and fairly priced, our tasters find a lot to like in this range of 20-year-old tawny ports. Clinton Cawood joins the enthusiastic love-in

Port can be an impenetrable category, not only for consumers, but for those in the trade trying to convince diners to fork out for a bottle after a meal. But it’s not all top-end vintage port by the bottle, you know – the strength of these fortified wines from Portugal lies with the diversity within the category.

Right in between the often-unremarkable entry-level and the special-occasion vintage bottles, there’s tawny, with all of its accessibility in both price and flavour. Significant time in barrel gives these wines considerable flexibility: the characteristics to match with dessert or cheese, with a cigar after a meal, or even paired with certain robust dishes. And all at comparatively more accessible prices than certain other top-end fortifieds from Portugal.

So we called in all of the 20-year-old tawnies we could find in the UK, and put them in front of a sommelier panel. This compact flight of wines lived up to expectations – diverse, accessible and, ultimately, very, very good.

We asked the UK agents of port houses to submit their 20yo tawny for this tasting, the only requirement being that they were available in the UK. Wines were evaluated blind, with tasters only aware of each wine’s price. Each was scored out of 20, taking value for money into account. Scores were then collated to obtain a percentage score. All prices listed are ex-VAT trade. 

The panel

Mike Blackburn, The Modern Pantry; Fred Brugues, Sketch; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Caroline Doyle, Borough Wines; Giovanni Giannini, Wernher Restaurant, Luton Hoo Hotel; Scott Levy, Smith & Wollensky; Nabil Mehdinejad, The Modern Pantry


87 Ramos-Pinto Quinta do Bom Retiro
‘Lovely brown sugar aromas on the nose, with some walnut notes too – one of the most accomplished aromas of the day. This leads to a superb palate of dried prune, raisin and walnuts. Long and balanced. Bravo!’ FB. ‘Fine and elegant complexity here, with good persistence. There are some chocolate notes, along with Christmas spices. A seductive and interesting wine,’ GG.
£29.54, Maisons Marques et Domaines, 020 8812 3380

84 Niepoort
‘Amber-coloured, this is soft, honeyed and mouthfilling, with some sweet nutty notes and a sweet floral character, like acacia. Long length and complexity – this is quite a pretty wine!’ CD. ‘To start, some tobacco and citrus notes on the nose, leading to a soothing grape finish,’ NM.
£48.20, Raymond Reynolds, 01663 742230

81 Quinta do Noval
‘This opens with the coffee notes of a well-made latte, and then finishes a lot more like bobbing for toffee apples...’ MB. ‘A fine, elegant nose with orange peel, sugar cane and exotic fruit jam. The palate’s spicy, with more exotic fruit and good freshness, then a woody finish,’ GG.
£36.57, Gonzalez Byáss UK, 01707 274790

80 Sandeman
‘A delicate and fruity nose, with some exotic fruit and orange peel. This is soft on the palate, although a little tangy on the tongue. Fresh and moderately complex,’ GG. ‘This is a structured and elegant port, with dried fruit and nuts coming through in equal measure, plus underlying notes of freshly drilled wood. The palate’s soft and silky, with an opening burst of nuttiness, followed by cherries and candied fruit, before returning to a lovely finish of hazel and macademia nuts that just keeps going...’ SL.
£23.41, Sogrape, 01865 263308

77 Graham’s
‘Floral notes on the nose, along with dried cherry too. This leads to a silky mouthfeel, with toasted nuts and dried fruit and raisins. A really quite juicy wine, with well-balanced sweetness and good length,’ CD. ‘The nose is a bit timid, so the palate is a surprise, with more complexity than most, showing some wintry toffee flavours. This would be great for a Friday lunch in December,’ FB.
£24.56, John E Fells & Sons, 01442 870900

75 Fonseca
‘Subtle on the nose, with soft hints of raisin and a dry nuttiness. The palate is delicate, with light spice and some subtle raisin fruit,’ SL. ‘Sweet on the nose, but without any alcohol burn. The palate is very well balanced, with nice sweet fruit – marmalade and raisins. This leads to a long finish, with a bitter walnut note. I like!’ FB.
£22.31, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600

73 Churchill’s
‘Delicately perfumed fruit and potpourri, and a very vinous nose too. The palate’s full of blueberries and raisins, with a good amount of grip too, and some mouthwatering acidity. Well made, but would be even better with the right food to balance it out – maybe an autumnal game dish’, CC. ‘Sweet and lingering, with some clove and gooseberry notes. Overall not too sticky on the palate,’ NM.
£18.48/50cl (equivalent to £27.72/75cl), New Generation Wines, 01233 656787

73 Krohn
‘A complex nose, with everything from liquorice to dried flowers, chocolate, spices and sugar cane. There’s some soft, smoky caramel on the palate, along with more chocolate, as well as hints of coffee,’ GG. ‘Sweet, but well balanced with acidity – this isn’t cloying. There’s also a nice, complex nuttiness on the finish. This would be good with something quite fatty and savoury, like a game terrine or something similar,’ CD.
£21.45, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300

72 Cálem
‘This rust-coloured port has some great candyfloss notes on the palate, leading to a pleasant fudge character – very sweet!’ MB. ‘A slight coffee-chocolate note combines with a maraschino cherry note – this isn’t unlike a Manhattan on the nose. The sweetness is perhaps a little out of balance, but there’s plenty of cherry fruit on the palate too,’ CC.
£22.17, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

72 Kopke
‘Cooked prune notes on the nose, along with pine essence, leading to a rich and full palate, with lots going on – this is a big boy! Well balanced, with a long finish,’ FB. ‘A powerful mix of dark chocolate and raisins on the nose, along with a soft brown sugar note. The powerful palate echoes the nose, with chocolate-covered raisins and syrupy molasses notes, and a hit of rum. A little bit of wood lingers on the palate at the end,’ SL.
£21.25, Hayward Bros, 020 7237 0576

71 Ferreira Duque de Bragança
‘Shades of rose and gold, with sultanas and earthy notes on the nose, plus hints of ginger spice and candied fruit. The palate’s initially drier than expected, with spice notes still there, followed by a big hit of nuts, leading to a lovely warm, woody finish,’ SL. ‘Smooth, rich aromas, with some chocolate notes and a little bit of smoke, as well as a hint of dried roses. This is soft on the palate, with good persistence. It would be great paired with a classic chocolate tart or dark chocolate mousse,’ GG.
£21.11, Sogrape, 01865 263308

69 Offley
‘Up-front red fruit on the nose, along with a little bit of toasty wood. Baked red fruits follow, with sweetness and spice – this would be lovely with a rhubarb crumble or similar,’ CD. ‘Plenty of attractive dried fruit aromas, including dried blueberries, leading to a fruity, slightly herbal palate, along with a sweet peanut brittle note. Juicy acidity makes this a fresh and moreish wine – and it’s great value for money,’ CC.
£21.15, Sogrape, 01865 263308

60 Taylor’s
‘There’s a really appealing, savoury nuttiness here, leading to a restrained palate at first, but more nuttiness begins to show itself, backed up by the late appearance of some sweetness – not a big fruit bomb, but rather a generous, sweet, oxidised and nutty port,’ CC. ‘Quite delicate on the nose, although a little too boozy. The palate’s lean, with well-integrated sweetness but no richness of flavour. Notes of raisin and dried citrus peel, though. Maybe one
to accompany mince pies?’ CD.
£22.31, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600


- With a low score of 60%, this tasting wasn’t so much about separating the good from the bad wines, but rather the good from the exceptional. Everything here was of a standard, and well-made.
- There was quite a spread of prices, from £21.11 ex-VAT to £48.20.
- And while scores did increase to some extent with price, the real value for money was to be found in the low- to mid-price points.
- The variety in styles, even in a relatively small flight, led to an array of pairing suggestions, from traditional ones like sweet desserts and cheese, to autumnal, meaty, main-course stews and, of course, cigars.

From the panel

Mike Blackburn, The Modern Pantry
‘I was looking for that stupendous transformation from a young wine into the rich, intense, almost dried-fruit flavours that come from the barrel ageing. And did I find it? Oh most certainly, in barrel loads. The wines ranged from obviously premium mature selections to those that balanced youth with intensity of flavour.’

Fred Brugues, Sketch
‘Tawny in general is a versatile port category. I prefer vintage, but tawny is probably the doorway to putting port back on the map. That said, price didn’t always reflect quality here – paying more didn’t always get you more.’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘Higher prices usually meant higher quality, although about half of the entry-level examples here were outstanding too. Most importantly, there was a consistency in quality throughout the entire flight – there were no terrible wines. The range of styles suggested different ways to serve these. Some would pair with desserts, while others would work with rich game dishes.’

Caroline Doyle, Borough Wines
‘There was lovely variety here, which would suit varied palates. In some, the sweetness was secondary, and I liked that. I think the mid-range price points performed very well – as good, if not better, than the priciest of bottles.’

Giovanni Giannini, Wernher Restaurant, Luton Hoo Hotel
‘There’s a lot of work to be done in educating customers about port, but it’s worth doing. There was a wonderful selection of wines here today. Some would work with dessert, but those with complexity could also be paired with cheese, or a cigar. And when it comes to price, I don’t think £20 or £30 is a lot of money for 20 years of work.’

Scott Levy, Smith & Wollensky
‘I’m a big fan of tawny ports – I think they’re underrated and there’s a savoury element there that I prefer to styles such as ruby. I’ve worked a lot with cigars, and I think that tawny makes for the best cigar pairings out of all the port categories. I think it was also interesting to see how some of the lower-priced wines fared very well here.’

Nabil Mehdinejad, The Modern Pantry
‘Tawny’s my favourite port style – I’d take these over a whisky after dinner. I wouldn’t even mind some of these with a bit of ice. You’d drink Cocchi or Lillet over ice, so I think this would open these up too. Similarly, these would be perfect with desserts, like a pavlova, or with some cheese.’

Many thanks to The Modern Pantry Finsbury Square for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Justine Trickett.

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