Brown Sugar

When I first got serious about wine, the dessert section annoyed me. There are too many styles within styles, and there's an exception to every rule learned. It's also hard to taste a sweet wine and decide whether you'd want a full glass. What's for dessert? What else have I been drinking? Will there be a fireplace? Classifying the styles—and deciding which ones I liked best—became easy once I devised a mnemonic device based on hair color. I was ambivalent about the liquid blondes, especially from the New World, which tasted like candy apple or fruit syrup. The fruitcake-y redheads like ruby ports proved too cloying. I eventually realized I had a thing for brunettes, nutty sherries and tawny port in particular. Seattle is one of the largest port markets in the United States, which is no surprise given our perfect tortured-poet weather. A tawny port begins much the same way as a ruby port, except the tawny is then cloistered in barrel for a number of years. As with bourbon, the long exposure to wood and the little bit of oxidizing that takes place turns these ports brown and bestows them with nutty, caramel flavors. Most tawny ports are actually blends of wines as young as five years old with those as old as your granddad. (When you see a "10-year tawny," that's just an average.) While young tawny tastes like the pride of Tacoma, older tawny tastes like Almond Roca as interpreted by a master chef. Fonseca's Tawny ($13), which retains some of its fruity original nature, is the best introduction to the variety. The classic industry favorite, Delaforce "Curious & Ancient" 20-year tawny port ($36), collects flavors like flies in amber. Another top-class brunette suffers from bad press. I don't know if sherry's sullied rep can ever recover from Frasier and the nasty that is Harvey's Bristol, which is a crying shame. The styles of Spanish sherry are many: It can taste fruity, nutty, and softly sweet, or it can be caramel plutonium. In order of richness, the styles are oloroso, cream, solera, and Pedro Ximenez. If you're interested in sampling sherry, Lustau is the most affordable brand. The Lustau Deluxe Cream ($15) will make a believer out of you—it's crème brûlée in alcohol form. Sherry keeps a bit longer than port once you've opened the bottle. But if you only want the occasional nip of a dessert wine, go for infinite shelf life and purchase a Madeira. These wines, which come from a tiny island far off the coast of Portugal, are made much like port—with one peculiar exception. Madeira develops its unique toffee flavors from being heated in large pots after fermentation to hurry up the aging process. Look for the grapes bual or malmsey on the label. Blandy's five-year-old Medium Rich ($15) is a staple for my flask. It tastes like caramelized figs and dates and gives a little shock of alcohol to the tip of the tongue. Roger Downey is currently on a leave of absence.

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