Are dessert wines really for dessert?

Dessert wines are perhaps the most controversial wines served during a multi-course, multi-wine meal. Here's a little help understanding it all.

Not very popular in the United States, these sweet wines fall into three categories:

  1. Still wines: Botrytis-affected and late-harvest styles.
  2. Sparkling wines: Asti (formerly Asti Spumante) or demi-sec Champagne.
  3. Fortified wines: Porto, Sherry or Madeira.

There are, of course, many other sweet wines in these three categories, and from all over the world. All engender controversy because sugar, even in relatively small amounts, tends to deaden the palate, masking any flavors other than sweetness.

What's more, these wines, especially the fortified versions, can be high in alcohol and may be seen as the very definition of "just too much" wine.

Perhaps the most controversial question, however, is whether these wines really complement dessert. Connoisseurs of sweet wines, many of whom prefer to call them by this name rather than "dessert wines," probably will opt to drink a small glass on its own, in place of, rather than with, dessert.

This makes a lot of sense, because if you pair a sweet wine with a sweet dessert, one or both of them will get lost in a swirl of sweetness. Especially if you are tasting a very special, maybe older, perhaps rare wine of great subtlety, you will lose the nuances of the wine if it is paired with a sweet dessert.

Should you decide to serve a sweet wine with dessert, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that the wine is sweeter than the dessert. Simple desserts without a pronounced sweet taste—cookies, apple tarts and dried fruit compotes—will highlight the wine nicely. Perhaps the classic example of a sweet wine paired with a simple dessert comes from Italy: Vin Santo from Tuscany, Passito from Veneto or Sicily and Picolit from Friuli-Venezia Giulia are paired with biscotti, simple nut cookies that are often dipped in wine. Elaborate desserts full of cream or other rich flavors, even if they are not overly sweet, still will interfere with the enjoyment of wine.

Remember also that sweet wines vary widely in character. A fine Sauternes will be luscious, redolent of honey and tropical fruits. Sauternes is high enough in acid to be combined harmoniously with a plate of fresh berries or a berry tart (the combination of acid and acid emphasizing the taste of the fruit in both the dessert and the wine). On the other hand, the finest sweet wines from Germany—Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese, for example—can be light and delicate, almost austere when compared to Sauternes. The sweetness of the German wines is moderated by bracing and refreshing acidity, and so, like Sauternes, these make a brilliant complement to simpler fruit-based desserts. Of course, sparkling dessert wines such as Asti will refresh the palate with good levels of acidity and cleanse the palate with their bubbles. Finally, fortified wines, such as Portos and sweet Sherries, are high in alcohol and rich in flavor, and these are probably best served after dessert (and in cooler weather).

Listed below are sample desserts paired with the ideal style of wine for each dessert. Vintages are not included for any of the wines because this is not an exercise in picking wine from the best year, but picking the right style of wine for each dish.

Haselnussmakronen (Hazelnut Macaroons)
Spatrot-Rotgipgler Auslese, Franz Kurz, Gumpoldskirchen, Thermenregion

Tarte Tatin (Upside Down Apple Tart)
Vouvray, Gaston Huest, Loire

Apfelalflauf (Apple Souffle)
Riesling Auslese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, J.J. Prum, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer

Sika Piperata (Peppered Dried Figs)
Mavrodaphne, Boutari, Peloponnese

Biscotti di Prato(Almond & Hazelnut Cookies)
Vin Santo, Frescobaldi, Tuscany

Middle East
Ayva Tatlisi (Turkish Baked Quince)
Commandaria, Sodap, Limassol, Cyprus

Totya de Laranja (Flourless Orange Torte)
Malmsey, 5 years old; Henriques & Henriques; Madeira

South Africa
Caramongscraps (Cardamom & Coconut Cookies)
Rhine Riesling, Noble Late Harvest, Nederburg, Paarl, South Africa

South America
Budin de Santa Rosa (Farina & Almond Pudding)
Doux, Proviar/Chandon, Mendoza, Argentina

Churros (Fried Pastries)
Cava, Paul Cheneau, Cava / Penedes

United States
Pumpkin Pie
Muscat Ottonel, Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes, New York
Apple-Rhubarb Crisp
Riesling, Chateau Ste-Chapelle, Idaho

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