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 Comparing Graham's 30 and 40-year Tawny Port

Some time ago, I happened upon a bottle of W & J Graham’s 30-year old Tawny Port at a wine shop located in Calgary's downtown core. Rarely is this label available in Ontario, so without hesitation, I took advantage of the purchasing opportunity and happily stuffed the prized acquisition into my suitcase for the flight home.

Fortified wine of this style and age does not come by way of a bargain and this label set me back an uncomfortable amount for anyone to shell out for a single bottle of wine on a whim. The Graham’s 30 then sat in my cellar for another year before I finally coughed up the courage to break the seal one evening after dinner.

For the record – and in my highly critical opinion, the Graham's 30-year tawny port is a rare example of bottled perfection. Aromas of apricot, raisin, fig, and honey explode from the glass preceding a velvet-like palate of woven butterscotch threads. There were no hard edges whatsoever to deter my enthusiasm and I ranked the wine as number 2 on my list of greatest bottles tasted to date. [read a ghost in the bottle to learn more about numero uno.]

In the same wine shop, on the same shelf, two years later, I find a bottle of Graham's 40-year Tawny. Temptation can be overwhelming in the presence of greatness and I succumb to an unwavering pressure. And so significantly poorer but unequivocally proud, I cradle said temptation in my arms and cautiously avoid any uneven cracks in the sidewalk as I make my way back to the hotel.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, Calgary has some outstanding wine shops – and I have a bit of a self-control problem…

Once home, the bottle of Graham's 40 sits on display alongside five other moments of questionable judgement, namely: Grange, la Chapelle, Haut Brion, Échezeaux, and Corton-Charlemagne – my wife buys shoes, I buy wine; it all balances out in the end, right?

Having tasted the 30-year effort once before, but never the 40, the need to compare the two bottles is almost overwhelming.  I quickly set forth a plan to gather a tasting group for a blind comparison of the two labels.

This is not the first time I have gathered this enthusiastic group to sip and critique fine Portuguese dessert wine; three years ago, during an afternoon of ‘Fire and Ice’, we opened five bottles of 25-year old Vintage Port with authentic port tongs. [watch the video] The wine on that occasion was as entertaining as it was memorable and I promised the group that we would do it again.

Unlike its Vintage counterpart which spends nearly its entire life in the bottle where the corks grow soft and fragile with time, there is no need for red-hot tongs to open bottles of Tawny. The time spent within wood barrels is the catalyst for both the difference in style and colour.  The stoppers that protect the freshly bottled Graham's 30 and 40 pose no barrier to the contents within.

My guests arrive, each with a sinful dessert dish to pair with the wines. I've pre-poured 2oz. per glass of each wine for every person attending and labelled the glasses with a coloured dot. We will taste these wines blind - not in an effort to identify the contents, but rather to indicate our personal preference without influence from the label. In theory, the 40-year tawny is the better wine - how could anyone dispute that? Though in my opinion, the Graham's 30 was perfect – and I dare the 40 to demonstrate otherwise.

On initial inspection, both wines are surprisingly similar in colour and visually there is little contrast to differentiate between the two. Tasting reveals more variation and while both examples are a pleasure to taste, one wine has a slight grip that leaves me wondering if I might have missed that characteristic in my earlier tasting of the 30. I recall the wine being as perfectly smooth and without any amount of the orange rind bitterness that is more obvious in the 10 and 20-year tawnies by Graham's. Many people enjoy this characteristic in their wood-aged Port – I personally do not.

Oak influence and gradual oxidation softens the tannic structure of young fortified wines while adding a degree of complexity in the form of a pronounced ‘nutty’ character. I find it hard to believe that any amount of spice or bitterness could exist after 40 years in wood - and with that assumption I pronounce the smoother tasting of the two glasses to be the Graham's 40-year tawny and the better of the two wines.

Upon revealing the bottles, and to my surprise, I am wrong! My preference was not for the 40.  In fact, the preferred wine of the majority attending the tasting and the smoother of the two wines was indeed the Graham’s 30-year offering.

I've read on numerous occasions that a Port house's best tawny is typically their 30-year effort – and furthermore, the 40 label in each case is simply an enticing luxury for those willing to shell out the extra shekels.

My top 10 list remains unchallenged.

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