Sunday was blustery and chilly in Memphis, a dwindling down day when yellow leaves or none or few do hang upon the boughs when yellow leaves or none or few do hang … that shake against the cold, you know, bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. That kind of day, and thanks, Shakespeare! A good day for Port.

I had three bottles of Reserve Porto and six of Tawny Porto, including an example of a single-vintage “Colheita” Tawny. Typically Tawnies are blends of many years of aged ports; a 10-Year Tawny means that the ports in the bottle average 10 years of aging. The usual designations are 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Because they have already aged for years, even decades, in barrels, Tawny Portos do not develop in the bottle as vintage ports do. Once opened, they will retain their freshness and flavor for four to six weeks. The back labels of Tawny Ports will indicate the year in which they were bottled.

Reserve ports often carry proprietary or brand names. Theoretically, reserves are superior ruby ports, that is, young ports that have aged for three or four years and are bottled when they’re robust and fruity. The term “reserve” has effectively replaced “ruby,” which gained a bad rep as a mindless port for mindless consumption. Nowadays, however, port concerns put a great deal of emphasis on their branded reserve ports as representative of their house style. Reserve ports are reasonably priced and serve as a good introduction to what port is all about.

Anyway, I sat down with Benito and LL and a selection of cheeses and we got to it. We tasted the wines semi-blind, in the sense that I put the bottles in paper bags and then switched them around a few times and wrote numbers on the bags to keep the arrangement. So I knew what the wines were but not the order in which we tasted them within flights.

Remember that these are fortified wines, so the alcohol level is usually 20 percent.

These labels are imported by Premium Port Wines Inc., San Francisco.
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Dow’s Trademark Finest Reserve Porto opens with a burst of grape-infused black currant and black cherry fruit permeated by powdered orange rind, fruit cake and Red Hots; it is, obviously, an exuberantly spicy port that builds depth and darkness in the glass, adding layers of plum pudding, lavender and minerals. Though sweet on entry, this port finishes on a smooth, dry and (again) spicy note. Immensely satisfying. Very Good+. About $20.
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The Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto, while rich and warm and expansive. smoky and luscious, actually displays a bit more spareness and elegance than the Dow’s Trademark. This is beautifully balanced among ripe, sweet black fruit flavors, a velvety texture and ringing acid for liveliness and flair. Notes of black pepper and cinnamon and a hint of a roasted quality infiltrate the fruit from mid-palate back through the sleek finish. Lovely poise and personality. Excellent. About $23.
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I’ll confess to being a fan of the Smith Woodhouse style of sobriety, elegance and austerity, at least as manifested in the firm’s vintage and late bottled vintage ports. We expect, however, a reserve model to offer more youthful character, and indeed the Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve Porto, aged four years in oak, delivers aromas of cassis, bitter chocolate, orange rind, cinnamon and cloves. A few minutes in the glass unfold layers of dark fruit and spice packed into a texture so dense and chewy that it’s almost viscous, all this panoply culminating in a bracing finish. Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the trio of reserve ports tasted here. Excellent. About $20, and Great Value.
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Now the Tawny Ports.

The Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny Porto sports a radiant medium amber color. It’s smooth and harmonious, offering orange rind and bitter chocolate, toasted almonds with a hint of toffee, nuances of spice and floral qualities. Flavors of poached apricot and roasted coconut are set into a dense and chewy texture, while the wine grows more vibrant and spicy by the moment. A lovely 10-year-old. Excellent. About $32.50.
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For whatever reason, the Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Porto does not present quite the balance or harmony of the Dow’s. Oh you wouldn’t be sorry to sip it; there’s smoke and tobacco, burgeoning spice, sweet apricot and quince flavors, a seductive autumnal character, but some quality of heft and integration is not developed, so it gets Very Good+ from me. About $34.50.
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Imagine a dried orange stuffed with smoky almonds and studded with cloves and allspice, then dipped in the most austere of bitter chocolates. That’s how the Smith Woodhouse 10 Year Old Tawny Porto begins. This is as balanced and harmonious as the Dow’s 10 Year Old but more powerful, more vibrant and resonant. The rich medium amber color practically glows, and the wine feels as if it glows as it slides through the mouth and down the throat. This will definitely keep the winter glums away — or cure them if they have already descended. Excellent. About $31.
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The color of the Smith Woodhouse 1994 Colheita Porto shades from medium amber at the rim to dark amber in the center. Wood smoke and tobacco, toffee and bitter chocolate and, in fact, a walnut fudge-like quality prevail. Yet this is, at 14 years old, a remarkably fresh and clean tawny port, vibrant and robust, composed of layers of subtleties in spice and dried fruit, with a cast of leather, autumn leaves and Asian spices. Yes, I like this one; it will warm the cockles of your heart, whatever the hell they are. Excellent. About $46.
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The problem, to use a crude term, with this pair of Tawny ports — Dow’s 20 Year Old and Graham’s 20 Year Old — is that they didn’t sketch enough differentiation on our palates. Certainly they were enjoyable and delivered the acceptable, even required, characteristics for 20 Year Old Tawny Ports — almonds and toffee, spice and chocolate, a combination of potpourri and pomander, a smoldering smoky quality, a sense of viscousness married to lightness and delicacy. As you see, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with them, and I would happily sip on a glass of one or the other. But the matter came down to this, after we had spent more time with these examples than the others: “Very nice, but they seem pretty much the same.” In other words, we were looking for more discernible house style and didn’t find it. Very Good+ for each. Dow’s 20 Year Old is $56; Graham’s is $57.
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