A vintage port is a wonderful libation to share with friends after dinner on a cold February night. One taste, and you can almost believe March is around the corner.
Complex, rich, sweet and warming, the best vintage ports can rank among the greatest wines on the planet. One can only hope that every serious wine enthusiast has the opportunity to taste ports as memorable as the 1963 Graham's and the 1977 Taylor Fladgate at least once in a lifetime.
But vintage ports - the aristocrats of each producer's line - are also insanely priced. Middling examples that only a few years ago couldn't crack the $20 mark now sell for $50; the best now fetch three-figure prices. Vintage port also should be served when mature - 20 to 30 years in a fine vintage. If you forgot to plan a generation ahead, you'll have to pay a premium for the rarity of an old wine.
On top of that, vintage port is a hassle. You have to remember to stand it up a day before you serve it so the sediment can drift to the bottom of the bottle. Then there's the decanting ritual, which is kind of fun until your hand slips.
Fortunately there are alternatives. Most wine producers in Oporto, Portugal, offer wines that come reasonably close to the style - though not the quality - of vintage port at prices that are only mildly extravagant. If what you're willing to spend is between $16 and $28, two categories worth exploring are the late-bottled vintage ports and the 10-year-old tawny ports.
Late-bottled vintage ports, or LBVs, are wines from a single year, sometimes the best wines of years when vintage port isn't made and sometimes from the second-tier grapes of a declared vintage. They spend more years in cask than true vintage ports, and usually do not require decanting.
Tawny ports are generally paler, less sweet and have more of a caramel tang than LBV ports. Aged tawny ports are a cut above basic, entry-level tawnies. They are usually denominated in age groups such as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. Because the wines are not made from a single vintage, the ages are an approximation.
Tawny ports of 20 or more years can reach stunning heights of quality, but their prices can be almost as daunting as vintage port. At 10 years old, the wines aren't great, but they can be very satisfying. Tawny ports require no decanting.
A recent tasting of LBVs and 10 year olds showed that the quality in these categories was quite satisfying, though unspectacular - with a few sterling exceptions. Wines are listed in rough order of quality.
1990 Warre's LBV Unfiltered ($25). The oldest and most expensive of the LBVs tasted, it was also the best. It might have been even better had the back label's recommendation to decant been spotted in time. It's an elegant wine with generous blackberry fruit and touches of chocolate, caramel and herbs.
1995 Graham's LBV ($20). This chunky, sweet wine is a junior version of the vintage Graham's. There're gobs of blackberry and chocolate, and it goes down with impressive smoothness and length for an LBV.
1994 Taylor Fladgate LBV ($19). The 1994 Taylor vintage port was a classic, but don't expect the LBV to reflect that. It's a lush, soft port with medium sweetness, good blackberry fruit and a nice touch of chocolate. But filtering has stripped out any complexity along with the sediment.
1994 Osborne LBV ($16). Good for its price, the Osborne offers medium sweetness, generous blackberry fruit, hints of chocolate and coffee and good overall balance. It's not complex, but it's pleasant.
1995 Dow's LBV ($17). The flavors are typical, but the intensity is at the low end of the category. I would have expected more from Dow.
Taylor Fladgate ($24). Taylor's vintage ports are so great it's easy sometimes to overlook the sterling quality of its tawny ports. This 10-year-old has the complexity you'd expect from an older wine. It offers intense flavors of caramel, orange, lemon, nuts and tropical spices.
Graham's ($26). Though not as sweet as the Taylor, the Graham's rivals its complexity and smoothness.
Fonseca ($26). This rich, lightly sweet wine delivers a good mix of flavors -- honey, caramel, tropical spices, orange, chocolate, hickory - but it's not quite as smooth as you'd expect from a producer as admired as Fonseca.
Osborne ($24). This wine hangs in there with the Fonseca but can't play in the same league as Taylor and Graham.
Royal Oporto ($23) This second-tier producer gives us all the basic tawny-port flavors, but its tawny is among the least complex and a bit hot in the finish.
Cockburn's ($24). Too much wood flavor and not enough sweet fruit yield no more than average quality.