It’s not often you hear someone rave about a dessert wine. Indeed, for so many wine drinkers, the notion of a “sweet” wine isn’t terribly appealing. And that’s okay, but it’s also a bit like, I don’t know, putting down a mystery novel before you find out whodunit.
So to help demystify dessert wines, I turned to Ken Arone and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan. He is a Certified Master Chef, she is a Master of Wine, and together they wrote Pairing With the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food & Wine Pairing.
The book offers terrific analysis of food and wine combinations, clearly explaining why some work and others don’t. The pair answered questions via email, suggesting a “starter” dessert wine, keys to pairing wine with sweets, and their own favorite matches.
1. Define or describe a dessert wine.
A dessert wine is a wine paired with a dessert or in place of dessert. Often they are sweet, but they don’t have to be. There are dessert wines that are dry as in the case of an Amontillado Sherry.
2. A lot of people shy away from dessert wines, saying they’re “too sweet.” How would you respond to that? What’s a good “starter” dessert wine for a wary drinker to try?
More than likely this is based on limited experience of either drinking dessert wines on their own and or pairing with and overly sweet dessert where there is no balance. When time is taken to match dessert wines with desserts it’s a great opportunity to give people a wonderful culinary experience!
Tokaji is a great “starter” wine to try.
One option for sweet wines is not pairing with dessert at all, but with very spicy dishes. For example, Sauternes with spicy Szechuan dishes. The sweetness offsets the heat from the dish and there is a lovely dance of flavors that happen on the palate for a long time.
3. What are some classic dessert and dessert wine pairings? Can you describe a little about what makes each one work?
Ruby Port and chocolate cake is a classic. Ruby port (for example, Fonseca Bin 27) tastes of rich dark cherries which contrasts beautifully with the flavor of the chocolate making both stand out. They are also of equal sweetness and richness, so they match and balance very well.
4. What suggestions can you give for someone creating their own dessert/wine pairing?
The first principle we consider when pairing is balance – in body, sweetness and flavor. If one pairs a light dish with a full-bodied wine, it’s like pitting a fashion model against a sumo wrestler. There needs to be a balance. You can have a rich and sweet dish, like the chocolate lava cake, but it needs to be paired with something equally sweet and rich (such as the Ruby Port).
Then we consider complementing and contrasting flavors. Complementing is when there is a flavor in the dish that connects to a flavor in the wine. A flavor bridge is created and connects the two. Contrasting is when two opposing flavors work and harmonize quite well (such as lemon and berries, chocolate and cherries, apples and spice, etc.).
5. Are there any dry wines that make good matches for sweets? Again, specific recommendations are welcome.
We have a rosé champagne paired with a chocolate soufflé in our book. The soufflé was not too sweet and the berry flavors of the rosé champagne contrasted very well. And the airy texture of the soufflé complemented the effervescent nature of the bubbles in the champagne. It was delicious.
6. What’s your favorite dessert wine/dessert pairing?
There were several in our book that we loved. The tasting trials were a fabulous experience. I loved the Strawberry Shortcake with the Demi-Sec Champagne, Lemon Pound Cake with an Auslese Mosel Riesling and the Strawberry and Blueberry Crumble with the 5 Puttonyos Tokaji.