Tawny Ports

It's hard to argue against the charms of a fine Vintage Port that's been cellared for decades-except when your aim is instant gratification. That's the time for tawny Ports. These are fortified Portuguese wines that gain elegance and finesse from their time in oak casks. The best go in the bottle after years of barrel aging and deliver great flavor straight off the shelf.

Named for the color they take from the wood, they state their average age on the bottle. The casks are topped off periodically to offset evaporation and then are blended according to the experience and taste of the master blender. In the right hands, the results are exquisitely silky and mature tasting sweet wines.

One of the best examples of tawnies on the market today is the Ramos Pinto 20-Year-Old from Quinta do Bom Retiro, (scoring 93 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, $66 a bottle). Very pure tasting, it delivers rich flavors of toffee, butterscotch and caramel. The grapes are a basket of native varieties that come from a quinta-vineyard estate-in the heart of the gorgeous and steeply terraced Douro River Valley in northern Portugal. Ramos Pinto specializes in tawnies, and making them, according to export director Jorge Rosas, is the art of blending. "There is no secret recipe, but rather a style that goes from generation to generation and that has to be learned," Rosas explains.

While 20-year-old tawnies strike a balance between fruity fire and sage maturity, younger wines offer a fresher style. For that try Dow's 10-Year-Old (90, $33), which features apricot, mango and cherry tart flavors and a long spice-filled finish.

A recent Wine Spectator tasting revealed an array of formidable tawny Ports. Ferreira 20-Year-Old (92, $68) is polished, with dried apricot, pear and guava flavors, accented by apple-wood smoke. Sandeman 20-Year-Old NV (non-vintage, 91, $52) carries lemon zest, apricot, peach tart and caramel. Warre's 20-Year-Old Otima NV (91, $45 for a 500 milliliter bottle) is fresh with acidity behind cocoa, vanilla and dried apricot. Fonseca 20-Year-Old NV (90, $55) is spicy with clove and ginger cream as well as having maple and smoky fruit notes. The Graham's 10-Year-Old NV (90, $35) has spiced flavors of apple tart, flan and cocoa powder and a plush finish.

Visit www.winespector.com/123110 for further adventures in Port.

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