Dessert Wine? Sure, But Let’s Skip the Dessert

You’ve heard the so-called cardinal rule about dessert wine: “The wine should be sweeter than the dessert.”

That’s fine, but do we always have to pair sweet wine with sweet food?

Cheese plate

No way, say a growing number of dessert-wine producers–who, by the way, have convinced me that a plate of lip-smackin’ salty cheeses and cured meats can be a terrific light dinner, especially paired with a fine Sauternes from the Graves region of Bordeaux.

So, the question for wine lovers is, do we want our pairings to match or contrast? For eons, it seems, dessert wines have been served with dessert so they could match the food. But the new thinking is, if we plan our wine pairing to contrast with the food, the wine can fill in and enhance flavors we can’t taste in the dish. Instead of pairing our chocolate mousse with Madeira, let’s try some spicy salami with Sauternes.

I did just that, and was surprised at how the meat tamed the sweetness of the wine, and the Sauternes gave the salami a depth and richness it didn’t have otherwise. So I conducted further research (i.e., eating savory foods and drinking dessert wines, guided by the experts at Snooth.com) and came up with five sweet-and-savory points for your next dinner party:

  • “Dessert wines are not meant to be paired with desserts,” one expert wrote on Wine-logic.com. “They are meant to be desserts all on their own.” On my palate, sweet anything goes down better after the meal is finished and the dishes have been cleared away. I like to serve dessert wine after dinner, with a cheese course.
  • Unlike most fortified wines (think Port or Sherry), white dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are relatively low-alcohol. Still, their intense flavors and aromas might surprise you. Serve them in small glasses and take small sips.
  • Experiment before you serve dessert wines to your guests, because they won’t expect the savory pairing. Order some spicy takeout, maybe Thai or curry, and try a few dessert wines with the food. Go creamy, briny, fried, salty, hot, sour. Try any savory cheeses, deli meats or even spiced nuts that you think might work. If you don’t like it, don’t serve it.
  • Salty foods can make a sweet wine taste sweeter, but they might clash with high-alcohol fortified wine, giving it a bitter taste. But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The taste might appeal to you.
  • If you choose a Sauternes, which is my favorite dessert wine, try pairing it with foie gras. The wine will taste less sweet and the foie gras will seem less fatty.

If “dessert wine” to you means Port, here’s a tip for pairing it with cheeses: Port is actually a “fortified” wine. Brandy is added during fermentation to boost its alcohol level, and styles of Port can range from slightly sweet to cloying. Keep that in mind for serving it with a cheese course, and try the various styles–ruby, LBV, Vintage, tawny–with different cheeses. The Ports won’t all taste the same, just as some of the cheeses will taste smokier, saltier, or richer than others.

The only rule is, don’t be intimidated by pairing dessert wines with savory foods. There’s no wrong way to do it! Have fun, take some notes, and surprise your guests with a new taste adventure!

Wine Lingo:  Botrytis (“bot-try-tis”) cinerea, or “noble rot” = what happens to grapes when morning mists are followed by warm, dry afternoons. These are perfect conditions for a fungus to flourish, but then the vines dry out in the afternoon, preventing the fruit from totally rotting. Over the summer, the grapes dry even more, reducing their water content as the sugars and flavors become concentrated in the shriveled-up grape. The grapes look spoiled, but in fact they are golden for producers of quality dessert wines; that’s how the wines get their intense flavors and sweetness.

Sauternes med

Vino ‘View:  Castelnau du Suduiraut Sauternes 2006, 375ml/half bottle (14 percent alcohol, $20). I tasted this wine with several friends, and one declared before the glass reached her nose, “Wow–the apple aroma knocks you over!” This light-bodied Sauternes is as fruit-forward as wine gets, with strong banana and apricot aromas, followed by cantaloupe, pears and peach brandy tastes and medium acidity. As the wine sat on my tongue, I also detected green tea, cinnamon, white grapes and a hint of licorice. This is really a delightfully complex sipper, not terribly sweet, a great way to end a meal. Sauternes, by the way, is usually a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel.

Cheers!

Mary