Tawny vs Ruby Port: What’s the Difference?
While there are two main port types – bottle and oak-aged – a helpful differentiation for an oak-aged port's color, flavor, and aroma is whether it is a tawny or ruby port.
The critical difference is that a ruby port is aged in big oak casks with minimal oak contact (sometimes stainless steel), while a tawny port is aged in small oak barrels, which increases the surface area in contact with oak.
Aging creates the differences between tawny and ruby port's color, flavor, aroma, and texture.
However, you can also find different tasting notes depending on the region and types of grapes used to produce the port.
This article reveals the differences and similarities between tawny and ruby port, including insight into their respective winemaking processes.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Tasting Notes Compared
Ruby port is brighter, fruitier, and more youthful than tawny port, while a tawny port is nuttier, muskier, and more decadent.
This is because ruby ports are aged less with less exposure to oxygen and oak, preserving the grape's fruitiness.
A tawny port can spend twenty or thirty years in oak casks before bottling, taking on intense earthy and spicy notes.
Tawny port tastes of caramel, chocolate, figs, currants, hazelnuts, tea, and black cherry, with extended aging introducing butterscotch and coffee notes.
Ruby port tastes of raspberry, red cherry, plum, and toffee, with oak-cask varieties bringing baking spice and chocolate notes to the table.
Ruby port is the most popular of the two because it is usually cheaper and more approachable for beginners than tawny port.
However, a tawny port is a more exciting wine with warm, nutty notes that get better with age. Beyond the 30-year mark, a tawny port takes on bonfire toffee notes and smacks the palate with savory, earthy notes.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Aroma
A typical ruby port has an exciting black and red fruit bouquet with dried fruit notes, while a tawny port is nutty, spicy, and brimming with caramel.
The best way to describe them is ruby port is fresh, while a tawny port is musky – think fresh raspberry versus raspberry compote.
A classic aged tawny port is full of nuttiness on the nose, with hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans dominating. You can expect dried figs, caramel, and Christmas spice aromas, with an earthy quality in the oldest varieties.
Ruby port is fresh, vigorous, and full of intense cherry, raspberry, blackcurrant, and fig notes – a delicious combination that's highly approachable.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Color
Ruby and tawny port give away their colors in their names – ruby port is ruby red (pinkish red), and tawny port is tawny red (copperish red).
However, both ports vary in color depending on the type and extent of aging. For example, tawny ports that spend over twenty years in oak are noticeably paler than newer varieties due to some pigments leaking into the oak.
Ruby port takes on a darker hue when aged in oak casks versus stainless steel but is always pinkish red with a deeper hue than tawny port.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Alcohol Content
The legal minimum requirement for a Portuguese port is 17.5% ABV, with port producers using about 30% brandy to reach the legal minimum.
Port has a higher alcohol content than regular wine because it is fortified, meaning it has added spirit (brandy).
Tawny and ruby ports have similar alcohol content, with an ABV between 18% and 22%, depending on the region and aging process.
While some ruby and tawny ports go up to 30% ABV due to a higher brandy content, neither is more likely to have a higher alcohol content.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Sweetness/Dryness
Both tawny and ruby ports are sweet, fortified wines served as desserts in Portugal, but your typical ruby port tastes sweeter than tawny port. This is because the sweet flavors are upfront with zingy red and black fruit notes.
Tawny port is also sweet, but the nutty caramel flavors hold the initial sweetness back, highlighting more dried fruit and earthy notes with extended aging. This also gives tawny port a denser mouthfeel and a chewier texture.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Acidity
Ruby port is typically more acidic than tawny port, but not by much. While ruby port's average pH is 3.3, tawny port comes in at 3.4. The extra acidity comes from less aging, which retains acidity while aging mellows it out.
A 0.1 difference in acidity isn't much, but it is palatable, with ruby wines having more zing and snap than tawny wines, which are mellower.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Body
While tawny ports are always full-bodied, ruby port straddles the line between full and full-medium bodied, giving it a lighter mouthfeel.
You can expect a ruby port to have less density and chewiness than a tawny port, which can coat the palate with a very long finish.
Generally, the longer it is aged, the denser port becomes. Some 30 and 40-year tawny ports are so dense they can feel like half-and-half in the mouth.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: How They're Served
A traditional port glass is the best way to serve ruby and tawny port. Port glasses are significantly smaller than the average wine glass, holding around 6½ ounces (190 mL) and standing around 6 inches tall.
If you don't have port glasses, a small or standard wine glass will do, but only pour enough port to come up to a finger or two in depth.
Tawny port is best served slightly below room temperature at 60°F to 64°F (15.5°C to 18°C), while a ruby port is best 1°F higher at room temperature.
Serving port at too high a temperature brings out the alcohol, while too cold a temperature dulls the acidity and complex flavors.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: History
Thanks to historical records, we know the Romans grew vines and made wine on the banks of the Douro River in northern Portugal in the second century BC, although the first records referring to wine as a 'port' come from 1678.
1678 marks the earliest recorded shipment of 'port wine,' referring to the Portuguese fortified wine we know as port today.
The story goes that English wine merchants discovered port wine in the town of Lamego in 1678. The merchants had never tasted wine like it because fortifying grape spirit was usually done after fermentation, not during.
The abbot of Lamego fortified his wine during fermentation, killing off yeast and preserving over 80% of the wine's residual sugar.
Ruby and tawny port were produced in the 1600s, with their diversity mainly determined by winemakers' available space. Those with small barrels made tawny ports, while those with large casks made ruby ports.
It is unclear when the words 'ruby' and 'tawny' were adopted by the winemaking world, but they are probably modern creations of the last two centuries.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Popularity
Ruby port is significantly more popular than a tawny port for a few reasons:
- It's cheaper.
- It's more approachable.
- It's produced in significantly larger volumes.
Tawny port makes up only around 10% of port production, with ports aged more than 10 years making up less than 3%.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Grapes
Tawny and ruby ports use the same grapes. The six main grapes are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Amarela.
However, winemakers use different blends of grapes to produce different flavors, which also determines the port's rarity and price.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Growing Regions
There are three main port-growing regions in Portugal:
- Baixo Corgo is known for youthful and light wines (ruby port).
- Alto Douro or (Cyma Corgo) is known for mid-aged port wines.
- Douro Superior is known for rich, extensively aged port wines.
Each of these is one of three subregions in the Douro Region, with Vila Nova de Gaia on the far bank of the Douro being Portugal's most famous area.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Winemaking Process
The production process for a tawny and ruby port is the same: Grapes are harvested and undergo short maceration and fermentation in tanks.
Spirit (brandy) is then added to the juice during fermentation to kill the yeast and preserve sugar. This process is called fortification and it is used in the production of other fortified wines like Marsala and Madeira.
The aging process determines the port wine's category (ruby or tawny). Put simply, ruby ports spend less time in oak and are aged in large oak casks, while tawny ports spend more time in oak in small oak barrels.
It is important to note that every port becomes paler and nuttier as it ages but aging in oak accelerates the process.
Tawny vs. Ruby Port: Food Pairings
The sweetness, distinctive tastes, and smells of tawny ports make them the perfect pairing for rich puddings and custards.
Tawny port is richer, nuttier, and more savory than ruby port, so it works well with caramels and cream-based desserts like chocolate mousse. A glass of tawny port with Christmas pudding and sticky caramel sauce is a guilty pleasure we'll never grow tired of.
Ruby port is often served as a standalone dessert in Portugal, but it also pairs brilliantly with dark chocolate, fruit compote, and cherry pie. Anything with fruit works well with ruby port, especially baked desserts like pies and crumbles.
General food pairings that work with both include blue cheese, crème brûlée, olives, nuts, fruit cake, tiramisu, and ham.
Here are the similarities and differences between tawny and ruby port:
- Both are fortified with brandy (around 30%).
- Both are sweet with high residual sugar.
- Both are delicious as standalone dessert wines.
- Tawny port spends longer in oak (up to 40 years), while a ruby port typically ages up to five years.
- Ruby port ages in large oak casks, steel, or the bottle; tawny port is aged in small oak barrels to concentrate the flavors.
- Ruby port is slightly more acidic.
- Ruby port is more popular because it is produced in larger volumes.
- Ruby port is more approachable for beginners.
- While a ruby port is fresh and vibrant, a tawny port is musky and dense, with a chewier texture and more caramel flavors.
- Tawny port is best at a slightly lower temperature than ruby port.
- Tawny port is usually produced with grapes from the cooler parts of the Douro due to milder flavors that develop better in the barrel.
Which Port Suits You Best?
If we had to choose one port, it would be tawny because we adore the nutty caramel flavors on a winter's night. However, a ruby port is a fresh tipple you can enjoy with friends, so it is an excellent option for get-togethers.
Whichever port you choose, take it easy – port has a significantly higher ABV than unfortified wine (typically 20%), so you should drink less. One port serving is 3 oz (~75 ml), making it a natural sipping wine.