Taylor's Tawnies and a great pre-phylloxera Port

It’s been quite a week for tasting Port with two 19th century wines that I hadn’t tasted before (see below and next posting). This tawny port ‘masterclass’ led by the Fladgate Partnership’s MD Adrian Bridge was a useful vehicle to demystify the origin and blending of an aged tawny Port. Adrian started by explaining that wine is put aside for 10 and 20 year old tawny every year whereas the wine for 30 and 40 year olds is set aside every 3 or 4 years.  The wine for Taylor’s 20 year old comes from their own quintas whereas the wine for the 10 year old is more likely to come from some of the 72 independent growers who now supply the Fladgate Partnership. The wines are mostly foot trodden and start out as those lotes that didn’t quite make it onto the vintage blend (this is illustrated in the tasting below) . The wines selected for tawny are aged in lodge pipes (approx 630 litres in size) which give a greater ratio of wine to air than the large vats (balseiros) used to mature vintage and LBV. Traditionally the wines would be matured in Vila Nova de Gaia but shippers are increasingly moving their maturation to the Douro where they have temperature controlled warehouses with levels of humidity comparable with the traditional lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. Since 2007 Taylor’s main tawny lodge has been re-located alongside their main production facility at Quinta de Nogueira near São João de Pesqueira. This is at an altitude of 700 metres and the humidity is controlled by a sprinkler system which maintains evaporation rates at around 3% a year and prevents the so called ‘Douro bake’ that used to be a characteristic of many Douro-aged wines. It is still worth pointing out that at these rates of evaporation 100 litres of wine at the outset is reduced to just 55 litres after twenty years – a significant cost factor for aged tawny. An oxidative racking takes place once a year. Taylor’s have a stock of roughly 9,000 pipes (casks) of tawny, the age of the wood being around 40 years old. There is an increasing shortage of 630 litre lodge pipes and Taylor’s are currently experimenting with 250 litre barricas, thoroughly seasoned with Douro wine before being filled with Port.

Adrian Bridge explained that one of the main challenges of producing aged tawny is that you have to plan for sales 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ahead. Twenty years ago no one could have predicted that total worldwide sales would have risen from 200,000 cases in 1990 to an anticipated 500,000 cases plus in 2010. Many shippers have had to trawl the Douro in search of more stocks which accounts for some of the Douro bake character that has entered some 20, 30 and 40 year old wines.

The tasting illustrates the progression and the blending process of a Taylor’s tawny from 3 to 20 years old followed by a tasting of the 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old wines currently on the market:

3 year old tawny:

(from a single year [2007] with 3 years in large wooden vats and a year in pipe): deep crimson ruby in colour, still closed, quite spicy and raw; soft, full and broad with tight peppery tannins, sweet and focused, falling not far short of a young vintage. This is in fact a so called ‘Reserve’ wine from Taylor’s own quintas left over after making up the 2007 vintage blend.

5 year old tawny:

(from a single year [2005], a potential vintage lote from Quinta de Terra Feita): deep garnet centre just starting to brown on the rim; open cherry and Demerera aromas, slightly roasted and pruney, already quite evolved any showing some tawny character; lovely rich spicy flavour but quite forward and softening up.

7 year old tawny:

(still from a single year [2003], a potential component of Taylor’s vintage Port from Quinta de Vargellas): not quite so advanced as the wine above, looking younger too; big, ripe, bold, powerful and quite rich, both on the nose and in the mouth, firm tannins still very evident, not greatly marked by 5 years in pipe.  

 11 year old tawny:

(this wine is now a blend, mostly wine from the 1998 and 1999 harvests with some 2005 added): brick red centre, thin amber brown rim, starting to look like a tawny; fine rich aromas with some secondary nutty-woody character; smooth, sweet a touch woody but with quite pronounced firm, dusty tannins on the finish.

15 year old tawny:

(a blend of 1997, 1999 and 1985): turning distinctly tawny in colour, broader amber rim; lovely nose, dried fruit complexity, apricots, honey and nuts; by now silky smooth, round, showing some of the sweet concentration that comes from evaporation, rich, clean, very fresh with just a vestige of tannin on the finish. Very fine and clean. 

19 year old tawny:

(a blend of blends, by this time the wine’s pedigree has been lost): wood, citrus (candied peel) , much more complex with secondary nutty-toasty character, very fresh, elegant, attractive, smooth with lovely crisp citrusy length of flavour 

20 year old tawny PY:  

(no one knows what the letters ‘PY’ mean but they stand for the finely tuned finished blend awaiting bottling): true amber tawny colour; fine evolved, the components are melded together, dried fruit, toasted almonds, fresh yet with a dry edge on the finish. Delicate, gentle and very finely poised.    

This tasting was followed by a comparative flight of the finished wines (I have refrained from awarding a score to these wines as the idea was to compare one level with another rather than like-with-like): 

Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny

Mid-brick red colour, thin browning rim; rich, plumy, fragrant, fruit cake character; soft, smooth but still very much fruit driven, smooth silky-spicy finish retaining some tannic grip.

Taylor’s 20 Year Old Tawny:

Pale amber-tawny with a broad amber rim; very fine, delicate, honey and dried fruit character, complex, citrus (candied peel) too; lovely delicate flavour, still very fresh and with real poise, just as a 20 Year Old should be, still a vestige of tannin but long, velvety and overall very fresh. Near perfect balance.

Taylor’s 30 Year Old Tawny: 

Mid-deep browning tawny; not quite as fragrant as the 20 Year Old, Demerera nose, nutty, a touch casky (inevitable at this age), no vinagrinho (volatility); well developed on the palate, deliberately drier in style than many wines at this level, very refined and delicate with toasty length.

Taylor’s 40 Year Old Tawny:

Pale amber tinged tawny; quite subdued on the nose, caramelised aromas, very clean with little or no vinagrinho; rich, round, quite sweet in style, much more so than the 30 Year Old (though still drier and fresher than many 40 year olds), lovely dried fig and apricot character, rich but just stops short of being unctuous on the finish. This wine alone accounts for 48% of worldwide sales of 40 year old!

Taylor's Scion:

The piece de resistance of this tasting (and perhaps the raison d’etre too) was the release of Taylor’s Scion, a one-off bottling of a pre-phylloxera Port dating back to the mid–nineteenth century, probably 1855. It comes from a quinta belonging to the late Irene Viana Pinto in the village of Prezegueda in the Corgo valley near Régua. Two pipes were acquired by Taylors with a view to blending it in to the 40 Year Old Tawnylote (they still have stocks of 1900, 1908 and 1934 for blending) but they considered this wine so exceptional that they kept it apart and bottle the wine as it is. It is being sold in a hand blown crystal decanter, set into a wooden case with a book telling the story of the wine. There are 1,400 bottle of Scion available which will retail for around £2,500 a bottle.

Tasting note:  Deep mahogany in colour with an olive-green rim; fragrant, high-toned vinagrinho aromas, exceptionally clean and fresh, not maderised or baked; intense, concentrated, liquorous, very powerful, the essence of tawny, quite unctuous but offset by a streak of fine acidity, caramelised yet ethereal on the finish retaining considerable poise, leaving an aftertaste of Elvas plums. Truly remarkable for having kept so well in wood for over a century-and-a-half. The vital statistics are 19.72 % abv, 10.3 baumé and pH 3.47           

Location: The Westbury Hotel, London W1


19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)

17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)

15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)

13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)

10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)

8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)

Below 8 Faulty