Pick a Port: Tawny, Reserve or Late-Bottled Vintage

’Tis the season for a glass of Port. The weather is chilly, you’ve just finished a hearty meal and there is a fire in the fireplace. A glass of Port is just the thing to end your meal and help you settle comfortably into the rest of your evening. Port wine is made in several styles and all are fortified, meaning the wine is sweet and the alcohol is about 20%. These are sipping wines best enjoyed as an aperitif or at the end of a meal. We have four Ports to share with you that we received as tasting samples. Three of the most common styles of Port wine are represented.

After we sat down to taste through these Ports I realized I needed a refresher on Port wine production before I could write about our tasting. I consulted Karen MacNeil’s excellent reference The Wine Bible, and found just what I needed.

Port wine is made only in a specifically-designated area in Portugal’s Douro River Valley and Port gets its name from Oporto, the city that sits at the mouth of the Douro River. Blending is a hallmark of Port production and includes many grape varieties. Six varieties (Sousão, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional) are the most important in making red Port. Rather than being crushed mechanically, Port grapes have traditionally been crushed under foot in stone troughs called lagares by groups of individuals linked arm-in-arm. More recently, mechanical foot-treading machines have been developed. Fermentation is cut short with the addition of neutral grape spirits (brandy) which also fortifies the wine. After fermentation is arrested, the wine is separated according to the style of Port that will be made.

According to MacNeil there are as many as ten styles of Port. She considers five styles to be the most important, as they are the ones we casual wine drinkers are most likely to encounter. Three of the five major styles are represented in this tasting (Aged Tawny, Reserve Port and Late-Bottled Vintage Port), leaving Vintage Port and Single-Quinta Vintage Port for another time.

Aged Tawny Port is a blend of the best Port wines from several vintages that are then aged in barrels, generally for at least 10 years. Over this time the color of the wine changes to a tawny color, which is how Tawny Port got its name. Tawny Ports are labeled 10, 20, 30 or more than 40 years old according to the taste of the wine, not how long it has been aging in the barrel. That’s unexpected. Also unexpected is the suggestion to chill Tawny Port before drinking it.

Warres Optima 10 Tawny PortWarre’s Optima 10 Year Old Tawny Porttranslucent amber in the glass with generous aromas of brown sugar and dried figs. Flavors are nutty (hazelnuts to me) along with dried fig and plum. The wine is round, smooth, sweet and warming with a very long finish. 20% abv. SRP $26.

After tasting the Warre’s Tawny Port at room temperature, I chilled a sipping portion and tried it again. The dried fig flavors of the Port were accentuated and the wine tasted less alcoholic, though still warming. I liked it!

Grahams 10 Tawny PortGraham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Portdeep amber-brown in the glass with generous caramel and toasted nut aromas. This wine has an interesting herbaceous quality to the aroma that follows into the flavor profile along with dried fig, dates and toasted nuts. The wine is sweet, rich, smooth and warming with a very long finish. 20% abv. SRP $36.

When chilled, those interesting herbaceous notes weren’t as obvious in the Graham’s Tawny Port. The Port was still delicious, tasted less alcoholic and still had a warming finish. Drinking Tawny Port chilled is definitely appealing to me. I like the cool-warm contrast of sipping a chilled beverage with a warming finish.

Reserve Port is a blend of vintages that spend about four to six years aging in barrel, before being bottled and released. As a result reserve Port retains its dark ruby color and fruit flavors.

Cockburns Special Reserve PortCockburn’s Special Reserve Portdark ruby-garnet in the glass with aromas of milk chocolate, dried plums and dried cherries. Bold flavors of dried cherry, dried blueberry and cedar spice mingle with sweetness, in a medium + body. The finish is warming, a bit tannic, and very long. 19.5% abv. SRP $18.

Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is made from one vintage, rather than being a blend of vintages. LBVs are made every year from very good quality wines and are aged for four to six years in barrel before being bottled.

Dows LBV PortDow’s 2011 Late-Bottled Vintage Portdense ruby in the glass with aromas of dried mint and dill, cocoa and dried fruit. Bold flavors include dried cherries, milk chocolate along with that interesting dried dill component in the background. The wine is mouth filling, warming and sweet with a very long finish. Tannins linger on the finish. 19.5% abv. SRP $24.

Every bottle of true Port wine bears a seal across the bottle cork to assure quality and authenticity. Look for the seal to be certain you are purchasing Port wine, not Port-style wine made elsewhere in the world.



  1. A great refresher on the styles of Port and what to expect from each. It’s freezing here in NYC right now, and a glass of Port is just what I need to take the chill off. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Excellent article as always. What might be an excellent addition to this might be American port style wines. Compare and contrast them to these.