The Joy of Tawny Port
Photo/Jeff Harris

If your take on the classic combination of Port and a cigar includes only the thick, dark wine labeled as "vintage," you're not giving Port all the credit it deserves. It's time to consider tawny Port.

Each type brings its own charms to a cigar pairing. Richer in feel and flavor, vintage Port exudes notes like fruitcake, licorice, bramble and cobbler. Its racy sibling, tawny, emphasizes more elegant notes of caramel, hazelnut, almond, cinnamon and dried fruits and flowers.

Both are fortified wines, born from the same process. During fermentation a neutral brandy is added to the grape must (juice, skins, seeds and stems), which stops the conversion of sugar to alcohol. The wines end up sweeter, but with more alcohol (about 20 percent, or 40 proof).

It's in maturation that the two Ports diverge. Vintage examples are aged in oak for just two or three years before being bottled and labeled by the year the grapes were grown. Buyers expect to squirrel them away for decades while they develop their potential. By contrast, tawny Ports stay in wood casks for one to three decades. The result is a lighter-colored wine that is ready to consume off the shelf. This long cask aging also means no sediment and a wine that will keep in the refrigerator for a month or two after opening. (Vintage Ports last only a week or so.) 

Most tawny Ports are blended from a range of years and are labeled with age-statement averages of 10, 20 or 30 years. Wine & Soul Tawny Port 10 Years Old NV ($50), with its streamlined feel, showed birch beer, cinnamon, dried cherry and toasted raisin bread, while scoring 91 points in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication. Churchill Tawny Port 30 Years Old NV (93 points, $110) married hedonism and intellectualism, with an array of nuts, bergamot and caramel.

A second tawny option is single-vintage wine—sometimes called colheita—which focuses on a particular year even while featuring extensive wood aging. Poças Junior Port Colheita 1997 (94 points, $75) is an energetic sweet wine from a powerful vintage, with notes of ginger beer, Earl Grey tea, toffee, singed sesame and salted caramel. Taylor Fladgate Port Single Harvest Very Old 1967 (98 points, $300) draws you in with a pistachio aroma before showering the palate with a spectrum of buckwheat, toasted sesame, walnut shell, menthol and licorice that has such viscosity and tension that it seems to cry out for a cigar partner.