We all love dessert now and again, right? But what are the best wine choices for chocolate mousse, crème caramel, pavlova, or ice cream? If there is any food group that needs a little pairing smarts, it’s sugary goodies. And with Valentine’s Day upon us, we are ready for some sweet talk…
First a few definitions to sort out what ‘dry’ and ‘sweet’ really means in wine.
Most of the world’s wine is fermented to dryness. This means that all the sugar in the ripe grapes has been completely converted to alcohol, and you do not taste any sweetness on the wine’s finish. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are examples of dry wines.
These wines deliberately have some of the grape’s natural sugar remain in the finished wine. The winemaker has different options here: arresting fermentation by chilling or adding grape spirit, adding sweet wine to boost the sugar content of a dry wine, or starting with such insanely sugary grape juice that sensitive yeasts peter out, eventually leaving lots of sweetness behind. Examples of fully sweet wines made by these various methods are Sauternes from Bordeaux, fortified Port from Portugal, and Icewine from Canada.
Many wines dwell somewhere on the spectrum of off-dry to medium in sweetness. Many Rieslings (especially if they are German and have the words Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese on the label), some Gewurztraminers, many rosé and blush wines, and fizzy favourites like Moscato d’Asti. Don’t be fooled into thinking sweet means cheap – many wines in this spectrum offer a gorgeous balancing act of fruit sweetness and refreshing acidity.
And now back to the business of how to pair dessert and wine. Here are a few essential guidelines when pairing sweet foods with wine:
Let’s look at favourite desserts and go from there.
The most-demanded dessert ingredient of all! Chocolate is melty and mouth-coating, and can be challenging to pair. The wine must be strongly flavoured to penetrate through palate-coating chocolate-y goodness. The sweetness level, fat content, and bitterness of the chocolate will guide the wine choice.
Milk chocolate contains more sugar, and needs a sweeter wine like the classic fortified wine of the South of France called Banyuls, made from the Grenache grape (and hard to find!). Fruit-drenched ruby port has just the right sweetness, spice and silky texture for milk chocolate mousse, s’mores, or chocolate-dipped strawberries. Try Fonseca Bin 27, Warre’s Warrior, Graham’s Six Grapes or similar reserve port. Choose a tawny port or rich Madeira if you are combining nuts and chocolate, such as walnut brownies, Nutella crèpes or peanut butter cups.
If the chocolate is dark – say 70% – you gain more latitude for pairing because the chocolate is less sweet. Tannic vintage ports like the majestic Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port work brilliantly with dark and slightly bitter chocolate – think of potent, bittersweet truffles. Luxurious, super-aged tawny port like Quinta do Portal 20 Year Old Tawny is your choice for spicy, single origin chocolate like from Ecuador.
If you love really bitter chocolate – like 85% – (chances are you drink black coffee and Negronis!) then you can actually make dry red wines work, as long as they are fruit-forward and have medium to full body. Salted chocolate helps the match come together effortlessly.
Do you love sticky toffee pudding, pecan pie, or pumpkin pie? Banoffee, butter tarts, or praline? How about crème caramel or brulée? Rich and sometimes creamy, these desserts welcome nutty, spicy, and decadent dessert wines with viscous, velvety texture, and full body. Tawny ports, sweet Madeira, raisiny Pedro Ximenez sherries are all perfect choices.
Sauternes, the famous sweet wine of Bordeaux, is a natural with the torched caramel on crème caramel or brulée. The caramelized deliciousness of classic tarte tatin is also worthy of Sauternes.
Let weight be your guide with fruit desserts. A delicate fresh fruit flan or lemon meringue tart needs a citrusy sweet wine with a touch of tang. Riesling Pinot Blanc grapes make honeyed, succulent wines with high voltage acidity to match fruit. Late harvest or icewines are sensational matches. A fruit pie with a medium sweet Moscato is heavenly.
How about Pavlova? One of the easiest desserts to master (it’s a giant meringue piled with fresh fruit and whipped cream), it presents a blank canvas for fruit and wine. Try a sweet, fortified orange-y Muscat wine with Mandarin slices on your Pavlova, or a sweetly fresh late harvest Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for passionfruit and mango-filled pavlova. The ubiquitous, beloved macaron will love this wine too!
Not the easiest dessert for wine, given the numbing cold and creamy texture, but icewine has the muscle, sweetness and persistence. Flavours like lemon, coconut, lemongrass or orange ice cream or sorbet are tailor-made for exotic Viognier Icewine.