For those who relish serious dining, there are three basic steps to bring an enjoyable meal to a fulfilling finish. One is to make room for a tempting dessert, and the second is to sip a soothing post-meal wine like Sherry or Port. However, neither will be as satisfying as they could be if you don't first match the dessert with the right wine.
The latter poses the biggest challenge, yet offers the most satisfaction. Mismatching any type of sweets with any style of wine can put a damper on what starts out as a delectable lunch or dinner. To help you make the right decision, consider these guidelines: As the color of the dessert gets darker, so should the color of the wine. The wine should be as sweet as the dessert, with enough acidity for balance. (Read on in "What Balance Means in Wine.")
Former Food Network Host Gale Gand on Dessert Pairings
For more tips on wine-dessert matchups, we reached out to the experts - chefs, cookbook authors and wine specialists who've developed proven wine and food pairings. Our search begins at Tru, a world-renowned restaurant in Chicago with a wine portfolio totaling 1,500 bottles. Pastry chef at the four-star dining destination is James Beard Award winner, former Food Network host and dessert impresario Gale Gand. Also a cookbook author and culinary instructor, Gand recommends focusing on different dessert categories when selecting wine - custard and vanilla, fruit and spices and caramel and chocolate. Here's her guide to wine pairing for each of these groups:
Custard and Vanilla Desserts
Cream-based desserts like custard and vanilla-inspired pastries express light, mild, buttery flavors. Suggested wines are whites like late-harvest Riesling and sparklers such as demi-sec Champagne and Asti Spumanti.
Desserts of Fruit With Spices
Desserts that utilize fruit and spices in their execution include poached pears, apple pies, cinnamon-infused concoctions and anything made with fresh berries, apples and nutmeg. The recommended wines for these warm, homey desserts are late-harvest Gewirtztraminer, Sauternes and pink Champagne.
Multi-flavored desserts pair well with Port and Champagne.
Caramel and Chocolate
Caramel and chocolate desserts are heavy; they offer rich buttery tones and it's best to pair these with roses like Pinot Noir, Banyuls, Grenache and Australian Shiraz, plus Port and Grappa. (Learn more in "Grenache Magic: Subtle and Seductive." and "Grappa: Once Wild, Now Mild")
Dolce Italia's Francine Segan's Wine and Dessert Pairings
From Gand we turn to Francine Segan - wine writer, spokesperson for the Dolce Italia restaurant group and authority on Italian culinary culture. "There are several differences in how many Italians perceive dessert compared to people in the U.S. and elsewhere," she noted.
"Italians generally linger at the table following a meal to chat and nibble on nuts or fruit," Segan said. "Desserts are served with wine such as Port, Sherry or sparkling, but never with coffee or tea." She offers three factors to consider when choosing dessert wine.
Acidity, Intensity & Sweetness
Acidic wine pairs best with fruit that likewise has natural acidity. The more intense the dessert flavor, the more bold the wine should be. Dessert wine should be sweeter than the dessert itself.
An educational resource identifies five types of dessert wine - sparkling, slightly sweet, richly sweet, sweet red and fortified. Each is produced with extra sweet grapes in which the fermentation process is discontinued before the yeast turns the natural grape sugar into alcohol. An example is Muscat Blanc, made with grapes much older, for instance, than those in Cabernet Sauvignon.
When shopping for bubbly wine, be sure to look for these words on the label: Demi-sec (French for off-dry), Amiable (Italian for slightly sweet), Semi Secco (Italian for off-dry), Doux and Molleux (French for sweet) and Dolce/Dulce (Italian or Spanish for sweet).
Another term that pops up occasionally in wine conversations is "Ice Wine." A dessert in itself, this wine is rare and expensive for two reasons. First, it occurs only in years when vineyards freeze. Second, the grapes must be picked and pressed while they are still frozen, usually in the middle of the night. Ice Wine is commonly produced in colder climates like Canada, Germany and Switzerland, mostly with Riesling or Vidax grapes
Fruit Compatible With Late-Harvest Wine
Our pairing journey continues with a stop at a popular food magazine, which claims that fruit tarts engage nicely with late-harvest wines, regardless of the season. Late-harvest translates into wine made from grapes left on the vines past the normal picking times to increase sugar levels. (Learn more in "The Hang Time Debate: The Vintner's Battle.")
Suggested pairings for Late-Harvest Wines:
Tarts and Fruit-Topped Desserts
Cheesecake with fruit or berries, fruit tarts, carrot cake and chocolate all harmonize with late-harvest whites like Airfield Estates Riesling, Northwest Totem Cellars Elerding Voigner and Covey Run Reserve/Semillion. Reds that work well include Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel and St. Supery Moscato.
Buttery and Warm-Spiced Desserts
Apple pie, buttery crusted pastries, pumpkin pie and English toffee can be matched with such sweet sparklers as Mumm Napa Cuvee M, Domaine Ste. Michelle and Schramsberg Crement Demi-sec.
Chocolate and Nut Desserts
All things chocolate, pecan pie and mocha are perfect partners with Eos Zinfandel Port and Robert Hall Vintage Port. Both wines contain a tasty blend of chocolate, coffee, licorice, cherries and herbs.
Research studies of wine-dessert combinations have resulted in these findings:
- Chocolate chip cookies go best with fruity reds like Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Oatmeal raisin cookies pair well with Pinot Noirs like Woodridge Mondavi.
- Vanilla cake tastes better when teamed with classic Chardonnays like Flop.
- Red velvet cake is a natural fit with red velvet wine like Cupcake Vineyards.
- Chocolate cake is complemented by the pronounced flavor of Woodridge Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cheesecake Teams Up Well With Sherry
- Cheesecake teams nicely with the saccharine imprint of Taylor Dry Sherry.
- Tiramisu is hard to resist when paired with Andre Brut Champagne.
- Sorbet becomes extra refreshing with Barefoot Cellars Pink Moscato.
- Chocolate ice cream is especially toothsome when served with Red Decadence Chocolate Wine.
- Apple pie is a palate pleaser when accompanied by Barefoot Cellars Pink Moscato.
- Milk chocolate is a simple but satisfying indulgence along with Taylor Tawny Port.
- Dark chocolate is particularly delectable when matched with robust Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel.
A tantalizing dessert can be the finishing touch to a delicious dinner, especially when linked with an appropriate wine. It's a match that doubles your pleasure while promising a grand finale.