They do things properly at Quinta do Noval: after every dinner of deliciously sturdy Portuguese food, the decanters come round. Each night, we tried at least two different ports and had to guess what they were. One night was particularly special, a trio from 2000: the normal vintage wine, the Nacional, one of the world’s rarest wines made from a tiny vineyard of ungrafted vines, and the colheita, aged in wood rather than in bottle. And which was our favourite? A silly question because the Nacional needs years more in bottle to show its best but the colheita was probably delivering the greatest pleasure. A bottle will set you back around £50 whereas a Nacional from that vintage, if you can find it, will be closer to £900.
A colheita is a tawny port from a particular year and they are some of the greatest bargains in wine. The 2000 was exactly the same wine as the vintage but whereas the vintage spends two years in wood with no oxygen contact, the colheita is left in a special part of the warehouse to gently oxidise under the watchful eye of Antonio Agrello. He has relinquished most winemaking duties to his nephew Carlos Agrellos but hangs on to the tawnies, one suspects he doesn’t want to leave his children. Most of these casks will be blended and sold with age statements eg. 10 year old, but small amounts are bottled as colheitas. Noval sells wines dating back to the 1930s. According to MD Christian Seely, when they get that old they are practically indestructible. The 1937 was spectacular but for me the highlight of the whole trip was the 1976. One of the greatest ports I’ve ever had, and you can find a bottle without too much trouble for £250.
For a long time, wood-aged ports tended to be drunk by the Portuguese whereas the British prefer traditional bottle-aged vintages but this is changing now. Tawnies offer certain benefits: they are sold ready to drink so you don’t have to keep them for 20 years, there’s no sediment so no pissing about with decanters, candles and broken corks, and an open bottle will last months, like Mr Seely said, they’re indestructable. If you’ve only ever had bottle-aged port, the flavours might surprise you: candied fruit, orange peel, a tang of acidity and nuts of all descriptions. I’ve converted many people who normally find port too heavy with a light, joyful tawny. They are also very versatile food wines able to take on pretty much anything that Christmas might throw at them: Stilton, hard cheeses, fruit tarts and even the mighty Christmas pudding. Here are five to try:
Quinta do Noval Colheita 2003 (Vintage Port and Wine £49.50)
Another one that wowed us over dinner in the Douro valley. Beautiful cooked strawberry fruit and an earthiness not unlike an oloroso sherry which fades into a symphony of walnuts. Very good indeed.
Quinta de la Rosa 30 year old tawny (Oxford Wine Company £75)
Made by a small family-run estate. This has faded to a beautiful copper colour. With its bitter orange and creamy sweetness, there’s more than a touch of old Sauternes about the flavours here but with a distinctive nuttiness that is pure tawny port.
Sandeman 20 year old tawny (Waitrose £31.99)
What an amazing experience this wine is: tobacco and Christmas pudding on the nose, then in the mouth a superb mixture of youthful fruit and citrus tang with the complexity of some very old wines. £30 is silly money for a wine this good.
Churchill 10 year old tawny (Oddbins £16.20 for 50cl)
Made by one of the more recently-founded port houses, a young tawny like this should major on fruit and here there’s a ripe plummy quality that’s intensely sweet but never becomes cloying. Great balance and the finish goes on and on.
Waitrose No.1 Reserve Tawny Port (Waitrose £13.99)
This shows how good tawnies can be even at the budget end of the market. Candied fruit on the nose with satsuma peel and cherry jam, sweet and light with just a little walnut on the end. Made by the Symington group who own Graham’s and others.