Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.
Dessert wines, as a category, have an appealingly paint-by-numbers purpose: they go with dessert, and occasionally, they are dessert.
But desserts are all over the place when it comes to both levels of sweetness and range of flavors. One person’s idea of dessert might be a ripe pear, where another person might argue that any dessert not involving chocolate is an utter waste of time. Ditto dessert wines, which can range from a lightly alcoholic, lightly effervescent, delicately sweet moscato d’Asti to a PX sherry with the viscosity of motor oil and a go-see-the-dentist-now sugar content.
So, a couple of things to point out. Food almost always has more effect on the flavor of wine than vice versa, and so sweet desserts make wines seem less sweet. Generally speaking, go for a wine that’s slightly sweeter than the dessert you’re serving. If the dessert is ultra-super-sweet, think coffee, or, for the brave, grappa.
Also, frozen desserts numb your palate and dull wine’s flavors. For ice cream and its ilk, coffee again, especially because you’ll experience that amusing moment when you eat an icy bite of whatever, follow it up with a slug of piping hot coffee, and then feel all of your teeth shatter.
But enough of that. Here are some recommendations for dessert wines based on the general category of dessert. Also, note that dessert wines tend to be a bit more expensive than table wines, but since the typical serving is about half as much, it all kind of works out in the end.
As a rule, chocolate does not love wine. Particularly dark chocolate: it’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s intensely flavored, it’s a tough match. The one thing that works particularly well with it is a sweeter-style Madeira, either a Bual or a Malmsey.
The tangy-sweet Blandy’s 5 Year Old Alvada ($20), a blend of those two grape varieties, is an ideal choice. So are the Rare Wine Company’s New York Malmsey Special Reserve and its Boston Bual Special Reserve (both about $45).
Fruit - just fruit, by itself - absolutely does not count as dessert, according to every child I know. However, many adults persist in the idea that a bowl of ripe strawberries, for instance, is a perfectly satisfying end to a meal. Conveniently, children don’t drink wine, so they get no voice in this particular pairing.
Moscato d’Asti, the lightly sparkling tangerine-and-honeysuckle sweet wine of Italy’s Piedmont region, goes fantastically well with fresh fruit. Two to look for are Saracco ($18 or so) and Michele Chiarlo’s Nivole (about $14 for a half bottle).
Custard and Vanilla
This category encompasses everything from crème brulee at a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris - or the insanely good crème brulee bread pudding at Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, Texas, which as far as I’m concerned gets about 19 stars - to Jell-O vanilla pudding.
Try a dessert wine made from white grapes—anything from the classic Sauternes or Barsac (the 2008 Chateau Coutet is gorgeous, and about $40 for a half bottle) to something like the nectarine-scented 2007 Les Vol des Anges from California’s Bonny Doon Winery (about $30).
Caramel and Nuts
Caramelized flavors, and nutty flavors, both find a great partner in tawny Port, from the Douro River Valley in Portugal. Typically a long-aged blend of wines, tawnies are themselves caramelly and nutty, with candied citrus peel notes. Two good choices are the Warre Otima 10 Year Old Tawny (about $20) and the Niepoort 10 Year Old Tawny (about $35).
More from Food & Wine:
Incredible Chocolate Desserts
America's Best Pie Spots
15 Rules for Great Wine and Food Pairings
50 Best Bars in America
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Actually, there is a red wine that has strong hints of chocolate – the name is Chocolate Shop. Whoever says chocolate and wine don't match doesn't know what they are talking about. I believe in drinking dessert!
This is great news. I can now guzzle 2 bottles of wine with each meal!
Eat some fruit with your chocolate and you can guzzle three bottles.
Apothic Red, a Zin blend of zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is a fantastic wine with chocolate, particular chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Very unique and peculiar. But, very good.
Ahhh laks Thunderbird.
Don't forget a good barley wine, barrel aged imperial stout, or even a Belgian fruit lambic (or an American counterpart like Odell Friek), can be great after a meal as well.
Ray has it wrong. A good Milk chocolate is an excellent dessert compliment for a nice Cab Sav. The tastes blend and create the sensation of chocolate coverd cherries.
Forego the dessert and just have a nice cognac! Mmm!
Wash it down with a Bud Lite and you've got some good eats.
Double scotch and cigar for me please! keep your wine list for "immature palates"!
You can say that again!
Elaborate desserts and sweet wines, questionable concoctions not intended to ruin the restorative properties of a good meal, but that do. If anything, they probably just reward an immature palate.
Just stuff it in your pie hole and shut up already.
^^ Cracks me up!
When the desert is too heavy, this can be true. Unfortunately, the super-size-it attitude of Americans has distorted desert. Desert plates are the smallest plates. We eat desert with forks and spoons that are small. Desert wines often come in small bottles and are served in small glasses. Desert should be just a few bites and the wine should be just a few sips. It is delicious to end the meal with a sweet, but not so much that you end the meal exhausted from the desert.
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