Eating & Drinking

The Great Brown Wines of Winter

Could there be a better day to pour yourself a short glass? Neat or on the rocks – as long as you are seated fireside with a cozy blanket. Or at your desk, whatever.

Some of the greatest treasures of the wine world lie under our noses, barely noticed and priced ridiculously below value. They are fascinating, warming, and riveting. Most are technically of superb quality, scoring (in my books anyway) well over 90 points. Oxidized intentionally in barrels to a deep mahogany brown colour, many are older than some of our readers.

I refer to the great tawny-coloured fortified sherries, ports, and madeiras of Spain and Portugal, wines to which alcohol is added to achieve about 20 percent (half that of spirits). And therein lies the rub. The higher alcohol, among other things, has cast them onto the riverbank of modern, urban life, and they are languishing there like driftwood, their lack of popularity depressing their prices.

Sweetness and expectation of sweetness where none actually exists are reasons many shun the brown wines. To clarify, all port wines from Portugal are sweet, while all sherries from Spain are born as dry wines with some less expensive cream sherries being sweetened just prior to bottling. Most remain dry all their lives.

The production and aging of ports, sherries, madeiras, marsalas, and other fortified wines are too complex and nuanced to detail here. The common denominator is that long aging in barrels, often for decades, not only browns them but also adds incredible layers of complexity and smooths the texture, achieving all things that make “old” wine so desirable.

This is not to say you will automatically like them. Their flavours differ from non-fortified wines in that they are based on nuts and dried fruits as opposed to flowers and berries. But once you acquire the taste — and you can’t afford not to try them — you will wonder how you ever lived without the browns.

They are wines to contemplate and sip in moderate amounts. And let’s not forget, they have this chest-warming 20 percent alcohol content, which is ideal on a winter’s eve. And, oh yes, a bottle goes a long way once it has been opened. That’s because it is pre-oxidized, which allows it to be sipped for days without going off.

Here are some of my favourites, always available at the LCBO or Vintages.

SCORES  David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality. A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 86 to 89 very good; 80 to 85 good.  


Lustau Los Arcos | Amontillado | $15.45 | Jerez, Spain | 91 points
Dry amontillados are long-aged in partially filled barrels, maturing slowly for a time beneath a blanket of oxygen-inhibiting mould called “flor.” This creates a sense of apricot and orange fruitiness amid the nutty, coffee bean, caramel, and earthy character. It’s very smooth, rich yet bracing, warm, and vaguely cedary on the finish. Try with pâtés and firm, strong cheeses. LCBO 375097.


Lustau Don Nuno Oloroso | $14.75 | Jerez, Spain | 93 points
Oloroso is longer aged without flor development, resulting in a deeper and browner wine than most. This rendition is bone-dry, with intense aromas that come in waves of walnut/peanut shell, burlap, dried apricot, fig, orange peel, brown spices, and molasses. It’s full-bodied, has intense heat and outstanding length. LCBO 375105.


Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny | $21.95 | Portugal | 91 points
Packaged in a 500-mL clear glass bottle that shows off the wine’s gorgeous amber colour, this sweet port is all about savoury aromas and flavours — cedar, maple walnut, barley sugar leap to mind — not raisins and chocolate. Similarly, it has a sense of lightness and vibrancy on the palate instead of deep fruit. Excellent length. LCBO 566174.


Williams & Humbert Dry Sack | $13.35 | Spain | 88 points
This is a commonly found aged amontillado-style sherry with a hint of sweetness, despite “dry” in its name. But it’s also a way to dip your toe in the sherry pool, as the flavours of nuts, orange peel, and vague caramel are well integrated. Nicely smooth, with some alcohol heat on the finish. Very good length. LCBO 13565.


Casa Dos Vinhos | Five Year Old Madeira | $19.65 | Portugal | 88 points
From the island of Madeira, this deeply coloured, mahogany-shaded, fortified, and heat-aged wine has generous aromas of cedar, molasses, a touch of caramel, burlap earthiness, and raisin/molasses fruitiness. It is medium-sweet, and quite elegant, with some heat. A touch coarse but has excellent length. LCBO 27375.


Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny | $61.95 | Portugal | 93 points
The average age of wine in this multi-vintage blend is 20 years. It pours pale tawny and has a lifted, rich, and complex nose of maple walnut, prune/dried apricot fruit, honey, and wood spice. It’s full-bodied, sweet, and quite hot on the palate, still showing fruit and some tannin. Delicious sipping. Vintages Essentials 149047.


Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny | $37.95 | Portugal | 93 points 
What a gorgeous wine! Intense, pure aromas of molasses, apricot, honey, cedar, orange, and nutty (rancio) character often found in old brown wines. It’s warm, elegant, and powerful, with excellent to outstanding length. Graham’s has always had a warm, sweet, sumptuous style, and this delivers in spades. Price is for a 500-mL bottle. LCBO 620641.