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Tawny port is worth the extra years

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Was it the colonel in the library with the port pipe? Or Miss Scarlet in the kitchen with a wee dram on Christmas?

Those are the sort of tweedy, fusty images that I found gallantly contradicted in a few articles from the good writers at the Irish Times on the subject of port wine. Instead, they said, Irish bartenders these days are mixing it up in cocktails or serving it chilled and neat. But that's all I've got, vis-à-vis the obligatory St. Paddy's Day theme, so I'm moving on to one that, if very much about a binge, less so concerns drinking: the California Artisan Cheese Festival the following weekend. In the nexus of both stories, I discovered that tawny port is a cheese pairing nonpareil.

It all started when I was offered a few samples of tawny port from Portugal. Sure it's "out of market," but being part Irish, at least the part that counts when it comes to freely offered samples of fortified wines, I said, sure. Now I had to find the local stuff. What's the difference between ruby and tawny?

"My understanding is that in Portugal, ports have to be aged a minimum of 10 years before the tawny designation can be used," explains local port maker Bill Reading at Sonoma Portworks. Reading says that in some other countries and production contexts, so-called tawny port might have as little as three years aging, hastily accelerated by the use of heat. "My view is that there is only one way to achieve the rich flavors and amber color of true tawny ports—and that is through an application of patience."

Reading just released a third batch of his Maduro Reserve tawny port ($48), aged 13 years in oak, and it earned 94 points from Sonoma County's own Christopher Sawyer. I didn't know he did points! It's a lighter hue than both Dow's 10-year ($37) and 20-year ($65) tawny port, yet still on the red side of the sunset spectrum. With notes of roasted Macadamia nuts and oiled teak, it's similar yet earthier and less syrupy than the Portugal wines, with more acid in the center: the bright red fruit sings through a bite of Cofield Bodega Blue Stilton–style cheese, lifting the flavors of both instead of smothering one or the other, as so many touted wine pairings tend to do. Wow.

For sipping solo, try Meadowcroft's All She Wrote port-style dessert wine ($36), a style in between ruby and tawny, only available at the tasting room in Cornerstone Gardens. It's more tannic than the others, yet beguiling in its silky, Zinfandel fruited intensity. That'll put some tweed on your vest.

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