Are you one of the many enthusiastic wine drinkers who would never think to buy a dessert wine? Whether it's because you had a bad experience with syrupy sweet wine in the past, or you're put off by the expectation of a big price tag, or simply that you have no idea how to serve it, I'm making it my mission today to dispel all fears and inspire you to pick a bottle of sweet stuff the very next time you set foot in the wine aisle.
There are only three factors to consider when pairing wine and dessert.
- SWEETNESS - When pairing wine and dessert, the wine must be sweeter than the food. This is why slightly sweet wines (like an off-dry Riesling, for example) pair with spicy or salty savory foods rather than desserts. Don't fear sugar shock: Most quality dessert wines with a high sugar content - think Sauternes, Tokaji, Muscat - will also have plenty of acidity to balance them out so that the sensation you get is that of luciousness and not simple sticky sweetness. When you do come across a really sweet dessert wine, like Trockenbeerenauslese or ice wine, it might best be served alone in all its sugary glory.
- WEIGHT - The more intense the dessert, the more intense the wine to match. Light desserts like fresh fruit or Angel's Food Cake are going to pair nicely with low alcohol, lightly sweet wines like Moscato d'Asti or Brachetto d'Acqui. Rich chocolate desserts are going to pair with Port, late harvest Zinfandel, or Banyuls. You get the idea: Big body goes with big alcohol, and the inverse holds as well.
- COLOR - This one's not foolproof, but in general lighter colored desserts will tend to go better with white dessert wines, darker colored with reds. There are exceptions, of course, like the magical marriage of pure white vanilla bean ice cream and deep dark PX Sherry. I'm sure you'll enjoy doing a little homework here and experimenting with matches.
Now that you know there's a range of options out there and how to match them up, there's one last barrier to getting them on your table as far as I can see: cost. It's true that classic Ports, rare Sauternes, and Canadian ice wines are typically priced at a premium, but there are plenty of affordable dessert wines out there. Late harvest wines made in the US and Australia, Muscats from the south of France, most sherries, and many sweet sparkling wines from Italy can easily be found for under $20. No excuses, people, drink up!
"On the Bottle" is a column about wine and spirits appearing every Friday on the Martha Stewart Living Radio blog. Email your boozy questions and wine quandries to firstname.lastname@example.org and they'll be answered in a future post.