How to Choose Dessert Wines
Firstly, back to the golden rule for pairing wine with desserts – the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. Secondly, match the flavor intensity of the dessert with the flavor intensity of the wine. For example, a delicate fruit pavlova calls for a floral scented, fruity sweet wine with such as Moscato d’Asti, an German Auslese Riesling or even a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. In contrast a rich chocolate pudding could handle a Banyuls, Malmsey Madeira or LBV Port.
Types of Dessert Wines
Over the years I have mentally built up a library of favorite dessert wines.
First up would have to be the deliciously luscious PX (Pedro Ximénez), a sherry wine produced from dried Pedro Ximénez grapes, and considered to be one of the sweetest wine in the world. No need even for a glass! Just pour the wine right over your vanilla ice cream and dig in. Soaking some golden raisins in the PX overnight, adds an extra touch of luxury.
Next in line are the very sweet wines made from grapes that have been affected by botrytis, also known as noble rot. Botrytis is a ‘good’ type of rot that attacks thin-skinned grapes and shrivels the grape. Given the right weather conditions, the grapes undergo a complex transformation to produce some of the world’s best and longest-living sweet wines. Famous wines of this genre include Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokaji Aszu wines from Hungary, Quarts de Chaume from the Loire as well as the very rare and expensive Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenneerenauslese (TBA) wines from Germany or Austria.
Less expensive, but still very good examples to look for are the botrytized wines from the New World such as Semillon or Riesling from Australia or California; Montbazillac from South Western France, and Coteaux du Layon in the Loire Valley.
Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) is another sweet wine category. In this case sweetness is achieved by stopping the fermentation (by adding a spirit) before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol. White VDN wines are most often made from Muscat grapes. These are floral scented with peachy, apricot, honeyed or other tropical fruit flavors. Muscat VDN wines pair very well with fruit based flans and tarts.
Red VDN wines are usually made from Grenache. Banyuls and Maury are probably the two most renowned red VDNs. Extremely sweet, these wines have rich, heady aromas and flavors of macerating red fruit, and are some of the few wines that pair perfectly with chocolate or mocha desserts.
Icewine (or Eiswein) is another style of dessert wine. While somewhat similar in taste to ‘noble’ rot’ wines, it is quite different. Icewine is made from grapes that have frozen on the vine. Freezing concentrates the sugars and flavors. These are luscious wines with aromas and flavors of dried stone fruit, honey, orange blossoms, honeysuckle would and will work well with delicately flavored ice creams, sponge cake or fruit based desserts.
Fortified wines such as Port, Madeira, Sherry or Rutherglen Muscat wines also work well with dessert. Fortified wines are wines to which a spirit alcohol has been added. In the case of Port, it is always added during fermentation, leaving a naturally sweet wine. Sherry wines, on the other hand are fermented dry, and if a sweet style is being made, the wine is sweetened by adding some PX post fermentation. So, for dessert, make sure the Sherry you choose is indeed a sweet style.
There are many styles of Port wines that match many different desserts. I would pair a 20-year-old tawny port with a crème brulee, apple cobbler or other desserts with a touch of spice. Ruby ports in contrast need more intensely flavored desserts such as chocolate mousse, black forest gateau. And, a good Malmsey Madeira can take the richest of chocolate pudding
Sweet sparkling wines work with lighter desserts. My favorite here is probably the delightfully light Moscato d’Asti, which I love with a simple summer fruit salad or pavlova.
The list of possibilities when it comes to dessert wine is endless. These are but some of the sweet delights that work well. Do you have any favorite dessert wine?
Dessert Wines to Try
Below I have listed some dessert wines that I enjoy:
• 2007 Moscato d'Asti, Produttori di Govone, Italy $10 – Always a winner, even with people who don’t like wine at all! Sweet and slightly frizzante, it is a delicate, flavorful wine. And an extra plus is that is rarely goes above 6% alcohol. Drink chilled. Great with light fruity desserts, meringues or sorbet.
• 2007 Brachetto d'Acqui "Rebecca", Nuova Abbazia di Vallechiara, $18.99 – Slightly sweet slightly sparkling - a Northern Italian gem. Very cherry, berry flavors, that pair well with fruit desserts and fruit flavored ice-cream.
• Biltmore Estate Méthode Champenoise Pas de Deux, NV, North Carolina, $19 – Lively bubbles and quite aromatic. This is made from Muscat Canelli grapes. Aromas of orange blossom, yellow plum, nectarine and rose petals. Best with lighter desserts such as a tangerine cheesecake.
Late Harvest / Botrytized
• 2005 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos "Red Label", Royal Tokaji (500 ml bottle), $46 – Botrytized wine - Stunningly delicious, with layers and layers of citrus marmalade, earthy notes, golden raisons, apricot, peach, spice and toasted hazelnuts. Great acidity balances the sweetness. Will work with a wide variety of quite sweet and sticky desserts.
• 2006 Prum, J.J. Riesling, Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Auslese, Mosel $45 - Delicate, stylish. Gentle refined aromas and flavors of honeyed stone fruit, slate, fresh lilac. Not very sweet. Best with fruit based and lighter desserts such as pannacotta.
• 2006 Far Niente "Dolce" Napa Valley Dessert Wine (375ml), $64 – Late harvest botrytized wine made similar to Sauternes – a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Orange marmalade, honey, floral notes, apricot and wonderful earthy complexity. Not cheap but a wonderful treat. Enjoy on its own or with poached figs, or a glazed peach or apricot tart.
• 2005 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese #6 , Mosel, 7.5% , $52. Botrytized wine – Intricate and elegant layering of racy acidity, slatey minerality, vibrant fruit and earthy botrytis. Amazing structure for such a delicate wine. Peach, honeysuckle, citrus marmalade, yellow plums. Fantastic with summer fruit tarts or summer fruit pudding.
• 2005 De Bortoli ‘Noble One’ Botrytized Semillon, Riverina, Australia $32 (500 ml) – Vibrant, crisp acidity with beautifully integrated layers of fruit - citrus, peach, nectarine and apricot with acacia honey and hints of vanilla.
• 2005 Chateau La Rame, Ste.-Croix-du-Mont, $17 / half bottle – A neighboring commune to Sauternes. Lighter in style, but nevertheless delicious – lots of ripe honeyed stone fruit, hints of spice.
• 2005 Pacific Rim Riesling, Vin de Glacière - 2005 (half bottle) $19 – An icewine made from Riesling. Orange, peach and floral flavors. Great chilled with fruit based dessert, cheesecake or on its own
• 2007 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine, Ontario, Canada , $22 – Racy acidity to balance the sweetness, refreshing and packed with dried citrus peel, dried apricot, peach, guava. Fantastic value.
VDN – White
2006 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, France , $32 - Honeyed nectarines, peaches, apricots interwoven with summer flowers. Bottled sunshine!
• Essencia Orange Muscat, California, $23 - Made from Orange Muscat grapes. Intense aromas of ripe Apricot, peach, orange blossom. My favorite pairing is with traditional trifle, but also great with apple pie, flan, pavlova or open fruit tarts.
• Elysium Black Muscat, California, $23 - Made from Black Muscat grapes. Aromas and flavors of roses, ripe red and black berries. Richly textured. Calls for chocolate raspberry tart, Black Forest Gateau, or Blueberry ice-cream.
VDN – Red
• Mas Amiel Cuvee Speciale 10 Ans d’Age , Maury $32 – Complex toffee, macerating red fruit, sweet spice, earthy notes. Lingering and stylish. I could picture this with Emma’s red velvet Cupcakes.
• NV Gonzalez Byass Oloroso Dulce 'Muy Viejo', Sherry "Matusalem" VORS, 375ml, $36 – V.O.R.S means that the youngest wine in the blend must be at least 30 years old. Wonderfully complex – raisins, prunes, toffee, nuts, citrus peel, spice, caramel and I could go on. Great instead of dessert, sipped slowly while musing with friends
• NV Alvear Pedro Ximenez, Solera Cream, Sherry style from Montilla-Moriles (500 ml bottle), $20 – So unctuous, sweet and nutty. On its own, poured over ice-cream or with very rich desserts. It can take them all.
• Rosenblum Désirée Chocolate Dessert Wine (375ml) $15 – Fortified port style made from a blend of Zinfandel with some Syrah and Touriga Nacional. Rich, thick, spicy, powerful. Excellent with chocolate based desserts.
• Taylor Fladgate 20 Yr. Reserve Tawny Port, $47.99 – Fortified wine - With over 20 years of aging, this is a complex, wine, with a much nicer texture and more woody notes. The overall balance is much cleaner with flavors that should be savored for as long as possible.
Have fun matching some of these sweet wines to your favorite desserts.
Until next week enjoy!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Wine producers)