Tawny Port is so named because of its tawny color.
The sweet fortified wine known as Port, from the Douro region of Portugal, is one of the most complex and ageworthy wines in the world. Of the top five most important styles, aged tawny Port gets my vote for the most sublime style of Port. (So-called young tawny Port, simple and not aged very long, are not often exported). Its flavors—toasted nuts, brown sugar, figs, and vanilla—are like some otherworldly sophisticated version of cookie dough. And the texture of a great tawny is pure silk. The wines used in the blend for an aged tawny are usually wines of the highest quality. Tawny Ports are kept a minimum average of ten years in barrel until they become tawny/auburn in color.
All Ports begin as a sweet wine with about 7 percent residual sugar (70 grams sugar per liter), fortified to about 20 percent alcohol. It is the maturation and aging processes that set the styles of Port apart. Tawny Ports are blends of Ports from different years. Each of those Ports has been kept in barrels for a long period of time. Tawny Ports are labeled as either 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old, and sometimes even more. The age listed on the label is the average age of all the wines used in the blend. And it’s not a rough guess. Port Shippers are required to document the wines in the final blend, and then that final blend is sent to the Port Wine Institute to be taste-tested by an expert panel before the tawny Port can be certified and sold.
A word about sweetness. While Tawny Port is sweet, it does not taste saccharin or candylike. At least the great ones don’t. Indeed, Tawny Port made well should start off tasting sweet but finish tasting dry. That’s because the acidity, alcohol, and tannin in the wine are all carefully calibrated to balance out the sweetness. Tawny Ports are among the best-loved Ports in Portugal, France, and Britain, where they are often drunk (chilled) both as an aperitif, as well as at the close of a meal.