Whether it’s a late-harvest Riesling with honeyed undertones or a caramel-laced Port, dessert wines are rarely given as much thought as other categories of wine.
Part of the reason for this oversight is that dessert wines—due to their high levels of sugar content—are typically only sipped alongside dessert. Given that most meals feature only one dessert course, pairing options are therefore limited. A fresh and flinty Chardonnay can easily go with a starter salad or a fish course, which can’t be said for a heavy-on-the-palate Port.
Just as with most wine-pairing rules, it’s all about like with like—a dessert wine drinks best with a dessert. For example, a sliver of flourless chocolate cake might match up with Port. Or a French-cheese plate with Sauternes. Canadian ice wine alongside cheesecake.
From Canada to Slovakia, here’s a handy guide to the origin of each of these wines, along with their flavor profiles and suggestions for which sweet ending to a meal you may want to choose as a pairing. It’s important to remember that savory desserts are just as fun to pair and might even counteract the dessert wine’s sweetness. This might include selections on a cheese plate or an alternative to a chocolate cake that is less sweet, such as olive-oil cake.
Where produced: Canada (Ontario) and Germany
While the bulk of commercially available ice wine comes from Germany (where it’s referred to as eiswein) and Canada, because this is such a fickle wine that depends on Mother Nature (a frost needs to cover the grapes, turning them frozen), European countries will occasionally roll out a vintage. This makes the wine feel even more special. Oregon, Austria and Luxembourg also have a track record of releasing ice wines. Canada remains the top producer in the world for ice wine, known for labels like Inniskillin, Peller Estates and Jackson Triggs. Most often, ice wine is crafted from Riesling grapes although Canadian winemakers have been known to turn to Cabernet Franc or Vidal. Traditionally, ice wine—characterized by stone-fruit flavors—appears as pale yellow in the glass and bottle, due to white-wine grapes used in production.
Suggested dessert pairings: Fruit pies, soft cheeses (along with gorgonzola, blue and Roquefort), cheesecake and crème brulee
Where produced: Madeira, Portugal
While technically this is a dessert wine, many will opt to sip Maderia—featuring Negra Mole grapes (red) along with four white-wine varietals (Bual, Malvasia, Sercial and Verdelho)—as an aperitif to kick off the meal. Known for its nutty, caramel and spicy notes, Maderia’s first known production was during the 15th century when the port-of-call island off the coast of Africa enticed ships eager to fill up on imports to the East Indies. A unique quality of Madeira is that the wine, after it’s fermented, is heat-aged, a process called estufagem. Similar versions of Madeira—which can’t be called Madeira and are therefore referred to as Madera—are produced in California and Texas.
Suggested dessert pairings: chocolate desserts, carrot cake, banana foster and bananas flambe
Where produced: Northern Portugal’s Douro Valley (Porto)
Five different red-wine grape varietals are sanctioned for Port: Tempranillo, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional. Dark berries (such as blackberries or raspberries) merge with chocolate and caramel notes. Due to European Union Protected Designation of Origin rules, to be called Port wine the beverage must have been produced in Portugal. Even so, there are versions of this fortified wine stemming from other wine regions such as California, South Africa, Spain, Argentina and Australia. In those areas, the wines are typically referred to as Port style, so as not to be confused with Portuguese Port. Adding another layer of complexity, Port is produced in quite a few varieties: Garrafeira, Late Bottled Vintage, Ruby, Tawny, Vintage Port and White Port. Ruby and Tawny are the most common ones on the market.
Suggested dessert pairings: salted-caramel desserts, pecan pie, chocolate ganache and desserts featuring nuts
Where produced: France (Alsace), Germany, New Zealand and the United States (California, New York, Oregon and Washington)
As the name implies, late-harvest Riesling is crafted from Riesling grapes that are picked later in the season than normal (between one and two months later). The longer the grapes hang on the vine, the sweeter they get. While no two late-harvest Rieslings will taste exactly the same, it’s typical to experience oranges, candied lemons, apricots and honey on the nose, followed by pronounced notes of lemon (or other citrus flavors) and honey.
Suggested dessert pairings: apple or lemon desserts, fruit or berry tarts and layer cakes
Where produced: France (Graves section of Bordeaux)
Of course, the most acclaimed Sauternes—made from Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sémillon grapes—is produced by Chateau d’Yquem, a Superior First Growth winery in Bordeaux dating back to 1593. On the nose and into the palate are peaches, honey and apricots against a nutty backbone. A long, lingering finish is another characteristic. A few California winemakers produce Sauternes-style wines that are, due to labeling laws, called sauterne instead, or simply a dessert wine. One example is Far Niente’s Dolce, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
Suggested dessert pairings: crème brulee, roasted pineapples, fruit tarts, olive-oil cake and cheesecake
Where produced: Andalusia, Spain
Born out of Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes, sherry’s flavor profile features some salinity along with dried fruit and nuttiness. When compared with Port, sherry’s style is much drier and less sweet. It’s a misnomer that sherry is nothing better than a cooking wine—this is simply not true. In 2001, Massandra Sherry 1775 sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $43,500, proof that sherries are just as collectible as, say, Bordeaux wines.
Suggested dessert pairings: Spanish cheeses (like manchego), rice or bread pudding, flan, tiramisu and chocolate desserts
Where produced: Hungary and Slovakia (Tokaj region)
Although they are newer entries on restaurant and wine-bar menus, as well as in wine shops, in the United States, Tokaji wines (often having a palate lush with ginger, honeyed apricot, caramel, pineapple, butterscotch and caramel) have a deep tradition in Hungary. Tokaj’s “nectar” is even referenced in the country’s national anthem. Unlike, for example, France’s Champagne region, where only three grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir) are commercial approved for production, Tokaji winemakers are given a lot of flexibility. There are seven approved grapes—furmint, hárslevelű, kabar, kövérszőlő, yellow muscat and zéta—and six types of Tokaji, from dry Furmint to the higher-in-alcohol Szamorodni.
Suggested dessert pairings: pineapple-upside down cake, fruitcakes, dark chocolate, caramelized-apple desserts and raisin-bread pudding
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