Ok…so it’s the holiday season, you’re having guests over and you’re looking for wines to pair with desserts. This is your chance to wow your friends with your incredible wine pairing skills or…drum roll please…fall flat on your face because after the first sip of wine and first bit of food, the wine tastes like vinegar and the food tastes like raw sugar. Never fear…we’ve got your back to keep you from making those mistakes.
Before we jump in with a few suggestions, it’s worthwhile to review the basics. We’ve posted these guidelines in various posts before but when you’re talking about basic, immutable rules, sometimes repetition is the best. There are literally millions of possible combinations of food and wines so knowing the basics will keep you from a flavor faux pas.
Rule #1 – Don’t ever serve a food sweeter than the wine you are pairing it with (or unsuccessfully pairing it with if you don’t follow this advice). Wine has acid in it…even sweet wine has some acid and having a very sweet dessert will just enhance the taste of the acid. Newsflash…acids are sour and sour isn’t usually the main taste you want as part of a dessert. If you are serving a very sweet dessert, look for the very sweetest wines you can find. Better yet, try a little restraint and find a dessert that is not committing a full frontal assault on your taste buds with pure sugar.
Rule #2 – If there is cream in your dessert, avoid acidic wines. Do you know one of the most common methods of making cheese from milk? Just add acid to the milk. So if you would like to avoid having your delicate cream based dessert turn into cottage cheese in your guests mouth, avoid acidic wines. Of course, if you want to play a cruel trick on a few of them, this is your chance.
Ok…so now that you know the basic rules of wine and dessert pairings, let’s spend a minute and understand how various sweet wines are made and what they taste like. Sweet wines most commonly are made using three different techniques: allowing the fruit to ripen to its absolute maximum, extracting the water from ripe grapes leaving more sugar per volume or fortifying an already sweet wine with brandy. If any of you are reading this and wondering why a forth type of sweet wine isn’t made by just taking normal wine and adding a crapload of sugar, you can stop reading now and go back to your Boon’s Farm Strawberry Wine (which curiously enough, usually contains no strawberries) or whatever type of swill you prefer.
The first type of sweet wine requires the least amount of manipulation and involves letting the wine grapes get very sweet by leaving them on the vine until they have produced the maximum amount of sugar that they are capable of making. As a wine grape matures, its sugar level goes up and its acid level goes down. If you go back and read the dessert and wine pairing rules listed above, you’ll see that acid and dessert are not an appealing combination so this is a good thing. There are a number of grape types that produce copious amounts of sugar. In the US, Riesling is probably the most common sweet white wine and a late harvest Zinfandel is likely the most common red wine. If you are looking for this type of dessert wine, the term “Late Harvest” is the key indicator. If you see it, you know it will be a sweet wine. This type of natural sweetening can produce both still and sparkling wines.
The second type of dessert wine, which is produced by removing much of the water from the grape, involves a little manipulation but most of that is still done by nature. The oldest method, dating back to Roman times, produces ice wine from grapes that have been left on the vine until after the first frost. The water in the grape freezes while the sugar remains suspended in other liquids and while the water in the grapes is still frozen, the grapes are pressed which allows the sugar solution to run free and most of the water is left behind. The Sauternes region of France gave its name to the Eponymous wine where a very specific type of fungus called Botrytis, afflicts the fruit leaching much of the moisture out of the wine grape leaving a very high ratio of sugar to water and skin. Straw wine is similar to ice wine in that it removes water from the wine grapes, this time by placing the ripe wine grapes on straw mats in the sun, basically creating a raisin-like texture which concentrates the sugars in the grape. Although they are achieved by very different means, the basic premise is the same. Water is removed from very ripe grapes leaving only very sweet juice.
The last major type of dessert wine start with sweet juice and then are fortified, usually with something like brandy. The most well known types of this wine are Port, Madeira, Marsala, Sherry and Vermouth, although there are other regional wines that are also fortified. Most of these names are trademarked by the region that first made them so if you are looking for US versions of these, you will need to look at individual wineries to find what they are calling them.
That’s a quick dissertation on the major types of dessert wines but this is supposed to be a post on pairing dessert wines with dessert. I’ll let you in on a little secret. As long as you make sure your wine is sweeter than your dessert, you almost can’t go wrong. Go with what you like, but because I promised a dessert and wine pairing post, here are some classic pairings.
Late Harvest sparkling wines of almost any type are great with fruit. Go with light harvest, sparkling whites with lighter, more subtly flavored fruit. Stronger, more deeply flavored fruit are great for pairing with non-sparkling, late harvest whites or reds. Late harvest reds also pair well with chocolate, but just make sure that whatever chocolate you use, it’s slightly bitter. If you wonder why, go back to rule number one for remedial studies. This would also be a good pairing for the sweeter, fresher flavors found in ruby port. If you are looking to pair an ice wine or Sauternes with dessert, you can follow the same rules as a late harvest wine
Desserts with cream or cheese are great with sweet, fortified wines. My favorite pairing is cheesecake with tawny port (a port that has been cask aged much longer than a ruby port). Soft cheeses and tawny port make a great combo as well.