Sweet Wines for Your Thanksgiving Table

(Image credit: Matusalem)

I am as guilty as the next person for leaving the selection of sweet dessert wines until last. But Thanksgiving is as much about pie as it is about the big bird, so here are some tips on both choosing and understanding the sweet wines that can really complement the end of the meal.

Even though dessert is the favorite course for many people, dessert wines are among the least bought, and even less understood. Sweet wines are incredibly diverse ranging from light-bodied and just off dry to the decadently sweet and rich.

Sweet Wine 101

Firstly, here is a quick 101 on the different categories of sweet wine that you will likely encounter. You may also like to check out my earlier wine words post on ‘Sweetness’ for more information.

Sweet wines differ largely due to the way they are produced. Some key styles and production methods include:

  • Sweet wines made from late harvest, ‘noble rot’ affected grapes. The must from these grapes is so rich that fermentation naturally stops before all the sugars have been converted into alcohol – leaving a decadently rich, sweet wine. Examples are Sauternes, Tokaji Aszú, Austrian or German BA and TBA wine, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume from the Loire Valley as well as Monbazillac (near Bordeaux).
  • Sweet wines made by stopping the fermentation early by means of fortification. By adding spirit alcohol to a fermenting wine, the fermentation stops before all the sugars have been converted into alcohol, resulting in a spirity sweet wine. Port wine is the most typical example, as well as the French Vin Doux Naturel wines (Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, Maury and Banyuls) as well as most Madeira.
  • Sweet wines made by adding sweetness to a dry fortified wine. Unlike Port, Sherry wine is always fermented bone dry before it is fortified. All Sherry starts out life as ‘dry’ wine. Sweet Sherries such as Cream Sherry or Oloroso Dulce are made by the later addition of PX (the very sweet wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape).
  • Sweet Champagne made by adding a much higher than usual dosage. The sweetest Champagne styles are labeled ‘Demi-Sec or ‘Doux’. Demi Sec contains between 35-50g/l sugar and those labeled ‘doux – above 50g/l.
  • Sweet wines made from frozen grapes. By freezing the grapes, sugars are concentrated and water is lost, leaving a very sweet must. Similar to late harvest wines, the fermentation naturally stops before all sugars have been converted to alcohol. Canada and Germany are the two main sources of ‘naturally frozen’ grapes Today lots of places use a process called cryoextraction to technically freeze grapes to make ice-wine.

Tips on Choosing Thanksgiving Dessert Wines

The golden rule for pairing wine with desserts is that the wine should always be sweeter than the dessert. Secondly, match the flavor intensity of the dessert with the flavor intensity of the wine.

Thanksgiving pie is both very sweet and very high on the flavor intensity chart – so that immediately limits the choice. Look for big, bold, extremely sweet wines.

My immediate inclination is toward Port or Banyuls – both red, both fortified, both sufficiently sweet and both boldly flavored. These wines will work especially well if you have chocolate pecan pie. Sweetness is about 90-120g/l depending on the exact wine. Among the Port categories I would suggest a 10 or 20 year old Tawny or a LBV (Late Bottled Vintage)

For pumpkin or apple pie I would choose Sauternes or Tokaji (at least 5 Puttonyos). Sweetness will vary depending on the vintage and the producer, but it will be at least 150 – 180g/l. Another delicious option is an Oloroso Dulce Sherry – about the 110g/l to 130g/l in sweetness.

If you really want the sweetest of wines, look for a PX or a Rutherglen Muscat – each weighing in at 250+g/l residual sugar. No wonder Rutherglen Muscats are called Stickies in their native Australia!

What are some of your favorites pie and wine pairings?What are you serving with pie this year? I would love to know!