What is the Difference Between Port and Tawny Port?

Often wine enthusiasts with a passion for Port ask what the difference is between regular Ports and Tawny Port.

The primary difference between Port and Tawny Port is the extensive, decades-long aging process that Tawny Port undergoes, which creates a flavor that is smoother, nuttier, and sweeter.

While there are many similarities in the origins and production of both types of Port, the extra aging given to Tawny Port noticeably changes the taste and body of the port. This article will discuss how this additional aging is achieved and what effect it has on the quality and flavor of Tawny Port, in comparison to regular Port.

How are Port and Tawny Port Made?

Port grapes originate from northern Portugal, hence the name, and these grapes are only found and grown in Portugal with the first Port wines ever sold dating back to the 1700s. Port grapes come in thirty different varieties, ranging from red to white, and most Port wines are made with a mixture of different grapes within the same color type.

As a fortified wine, Port undergoes much of the same winemaking process as other vintages, being harvested, juiced, and fermented to create an alcoholic beverage. The difference between Port and other non-fortified wines is the fortification process and how it impacts the qualities of wine.

Fortification in wine is the process of adding Brandy or distilled spirits to wine as it ferments, preventing further fermentation. It does this by killing the yeast which converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol, and by stopping fermentation prematurely with alcohol fortified wines achieve the right ABV but retain their natural sugars and fruitiness.

Once a wine is fortified it is usually undergoes a relatively short aging process, ranging from a few months to just over a year. This preserves the freshness and fruitiness of the wine while still maintaining a high ABV. Once the wine is properly aged it is bottled, shipped, and sold to wine enthusiasts around the world.

Tawny Port follows many of the same steps as regular Port, but diverts at two key points, how the wine is stored and how long it is aged. Tawny Port is stored in small oak barrels, which fill each batch of wine with concentrated amounts of tannins. These natural polyphenols help to preserve wine for long term aging and help give Tawny Port its unique flavor.

Tawny Port also undergoes a process of oxidation while in oak barrels as oak wood is more porous than other species and allows more gas exchange between the inside and outside of the barrel. Oxidation allows the chemicals inside the port to settle and age, while also giving the wine its unique, faded coloration.

The effects of tannins and oxidation are enhanced by an extensive aging process that can take well over forty years to complete for some vintages. Due to the amount of time Tawny Port is stored in oak barrels, the wine becomes more tannic over time and the many natural chemicals found in wine balance and blend to create a more complex final product.

Tawny Port’s additional aging, whether it takes three years or thirty, is not only a key difference between Tawny and other type of Port, but creates all of the other differences as well.

What do Port and Tawny Port Taste Like?

Port wines run the full gamut from red to white, but there are many qualities that most port wines share. Due to the fortification process, Port wines generally retain the natural sugars and flavors of grapes, making them extremely sweet and fruity while maintaining a light body and a higher than average ABV.

These flavors are often supported by subtle notes of other tastes, depending on the type of wine grape used and how long the wine is aged. White Ports are lighter and slightly less sweet, while red Ports are richer in body and sweeter in taste. Aging also effects the flavor of wine, as the longer Port ages it loses some of its fruity qualities in exchange for a nuttier, sweeter flavor.

Since Port wines are often made from many different strains blended together, they often carry a diverse array of flavors ranging from berries, to cinnamon, to vanilla. While these hints are generally subtle in most forms of Port, they can help to create a sweeter, spicier, or fruiter beverage.

As Tawny Port is a form of red port, it already has a richer, smoother body and a sweet, fruity flavor with notes of vanilla and cream. These qualities are greatly enhanced by the aging process, as they allow the combination of tannins, added alcohol, and natural grape remains to blend into an almost creamy dink.

The lengthy oak aging process also adds distinct notes of nuttiness such as almonds or hazelnuts, as well as sweet tinges of butterscotch and vanilla. Most Ports are already considered a dessert style wine, and Tawny Port’s aging creates an even sweeter, creamier beverage for more pleasant dessert drinking.

The degree of this sweetness, nuttiness, and creaminess in Tawny Wine varies depending on how long the wine is aged. The less the wine is aged, the drier and fruitier it tastes, while the longer the wine is aged the more it develops a smoother, dessert like flavor. If you are looking for a specific flavor of Tawny Wine, knowing how long a specific vintage was aged is key.

While some Port wines can be quite sweet, Tawny Port takes smoothness, sweetness, and creaminess to an extreme, creating an almost liquid-dessert like drink.

What do Port and Tawny Port Pair With?

Due to their different flavor palates and bodies, Port and Tawny Port pair better with different foods. While there is some overlap with both wines for certain sweet foods, the concentrated creaminess of Tawny Port helps to separate it from regular Port pairings.

Port wine is an extremely versatile drink, able to blend with a wide range of foods ranging from rich cheeses to smoked meats. It also pairs well with salted or smoked nuts, as well as nuttier foods in general. This means a glass of Port pairs well with strong snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and barbequed meats.

Tawny Port pairs much better with milder, smoother cheeses, grilled meats, and raw nuts, as they will not overpower the creaminess of the wine. Tawny Port can also be paired with fruit and fruit based desserts, the sweeter and milder the better. Pears, pineapples, apples, and apple pie all go well with a nice glass of Tawny Port.

As a point of comparison, both Port and Tawny Port work well with sweet, creamy desserts and snacks. If you are enjoy a dessert such as cheesecake or cream pie, consider enjoying a glass of sweet Port with your treat.

On one hand, Port pairs best with bolder flavors, while the mild creaminess of Tawny Port work with milder flavors. On the other, they are both excellent dessert wines as they pair well with sweet and fruity treats.

Conclusion

It can be difficult to distinguish between different types of Port, which prompts questions such as: what is the difference between Port and Tawny Port.

Tawny Port is aged significantly longer than standard Port, often spending several decades in small oak aging barrels. This combination of extreme aging, oxidation, and oak tannins create an extremely sweet, smooth, and creamy beverage. This contrasts with the fruitiness common among Port wines, which are rarely aged longer than a year.