When I am in a restaurant concluding a meal, I feel the server is remiss if he neglects to offer dessert wine. The restaurant has lost an opportunity to sell a profitable product and perhaps exceed the expectations of the guest.
After all, a sweet wine is a perfect way to end a great meal. It is a small, luscious, lingering finale to a hopefully wonderful dining experience. Like dessert itself, sweet wines complete a meal; the best of them leave us with magnificent memories.
The inspiring fact is that sweet wines are crafted in all of the world’s major wine-producing countries and they come in an endless array of styles. From off-dry sparkling wines to unctuous, honeyed whites to the sweetest, richest reds, the range of fine dessert wines is nothing short of remarkable. Here are three examples of sweet wines crafted in very different styles, to accompany a wide range of desserts.
Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons
Indeed, some of the most-recognized styles of sweet wines hail from the Old World. Say the word “Sauternes,” and aficionados’ eyes light up instantly.
Sauternes and its neighboring appellations of Barsac and Cérons, located in the Bordeaux region of France, render some of the most sublime sweet wines in the world. The wines are made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle grapes that are infected with Botrytis Cinera, or “Noble Rot,” as the mold is fondly known.
The results are extraordinary wines: golden colored, smelling of apricots and caramel, and tasting of honey and peaches and sweet cream and so much more! The textures are also unique. These wines are viscous on the palate—they are “thick,” yet they maintain enough acidity to never feel heavy or dense in the mouth. These special wines are a favorite of chefs and sommeliers, who pair them with everything from specific savory dishes (seared foie gras is a classic pairing) to desserts such as crème brûlée, Tarte Tatin and a wide variety of stone fruit and nut desserts. Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons complement well desserts that share their characteristics of vanilla, honey, cream, stone fruits, nuts and naturally higher levels of richness.
Less well known yet increasing in popularity is a fruity, sparkling rosé from eastern France. Bugey-Cerdon is a wine that is as fun to pronounce (“Boo-zhay Sehrdawn”) as it is to drink. To be sure, Bugey-Cerdon makes no claim to be the botrytised wines described above. It is, in fact, a bright, bubbly, moderately sweet wine. It has low alcohol content (an average of 6 percent), pleasant aromatics and flavors of fresh strawberries and raspberries. The wine itself is a charming pink color, a result of the gamay grape from which it is most often made. The effervescence in the wine is refreshing, and I have found that chilled Bugey-Cerdon is a delicious success when served outside on a warm day and paired with nearly any fruit dessert, as long as the dessert is not cloyingly sweet. An ideal pairing is with a classic berry tart. I’ve also discovered that due to its low alcohol, moderate sweetness and refreshing sparkles, Bugey-Cerdon makes a wonderful “daytime” wine; I bring it to brunch and bridal showers all the time.
On cold evenings, or after a particularly grandiose meal, I love nothing more than to conclude the experience with a caramel-colored sweet wine. And although I adore them, I am not talking here about the legendary Tawny Port wines. I am referring to Madeira, the other fortified wine from Portugal. Madeira is a volcanic island off the mainland; the wines from its steep slopes are labeled stylistically by grape varietals. There are four primary styles of Madeira. From driest to sweetest, they are: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey.
My pick for dessert is Malmsey. This style of Madeira is like no other wine in the world. It is the color of a walnut shell, it smells of roasted hazelnuts and salted caramel, and it tastes like heaven. It is sweet, but not overly so; it is rich, but also has elevated acidity, which creates balance on the palate; and its complex flavors of toffee, Medjool dates and baking spices are nothing short of a wine symphony. Like many sweet wines, Malmsey Madeira is delicious on its own, but when thoughtfully paired with food, culinary harmony achieves great heights. Malmsey is a magnificent pairing with certain cheeses; I have found that its sweet-salty characteristics are exceptional with cheeses high in umami like aged Gruyère and Gouda. As for complementing desserts, Malmsey is a fabulous pairing with rich, nutty, chocolate, caramel and coffee-flavored desserts. The profound flavors on the palate harmonize, while the acidity in the wine “brightens” the palate and prepares the mouth to enjoy the next taste of decadent deliciousness. That is happiness rendered.
And making our customers
happy is what our industry is all about, after all. Restaurants that systematically recommend dessert wines are on to something that many establishments miss—the win-win of pleasing their guests by suggesting a delicious end to the dining experience and the opportunity to increase sales.