At the time of writing Christmas is almost upon us, a time when we like to lay on a feast. Have you given any thought to which wine you will drink with pudding? Find out why drinking a wine that’s sweet with desserts makes sense and what the key characteristic is that sweet wines need in order to complement desserts. Also included is a comparison of different types of sweet wines like Sauternes, ice wine, vin doux naturel, Moscato d’Asti and port, a brief description of how each is made and which type of desserts each pairs with best.
After carefully selecting white and red wines for the first two or three courses of your meal, why would you not also find something to complement the pudding? Carrying on drinking the wine you have had during the previous course or courses will often not work and here is why.
Drinking a wine that is not at least as sweet as your dessert can make your wine taste at best less fruity, at worst flat, bitter and even astringent. In addition, any tannins in red wine will clash with the food’s sweetness, make the wine taste metallic and bitter and the tannins will seem even more prominent and unintegrated.
There are a handful of sweet wine and savoury food combinations that work well, some of which are mentioned below, but bear in mind that if you drink sweet wine early in a meal, it is very hard to go back to a dry wine especially a red and enjoy it as the flavours of the wine will seem flat.
The fundamental thing to remember, if you are going to have any wine with your dessert, is 1) to make sure that the wine is at least as sweet as the dessert. Many people over the years have told me, as soon as sweet wine is mentioned, that they don’t like it but I suspect that most of those people have not had the right sweet wine and consumed it with the right food.
I’m not dictating what you should or should not drink but your dessert and wine will both taste better and complement each other if you choose a wine that is sweet and with one other key characteristic and that is…
2) good acidity.
A wine’s acidity makes the wine seem drier than it actually is and it will ensure that the combination of sweet wine and sugary food is not sickeningly sweet. Acidity will slice through the sweetness of a dessert, make the wine seem balanced and leave your mouth watering.
Below are some sweet wines (some are classified as fortified wines but are also sweet or medium-sweet), together with some suggestions of the type of desserts that will work well with them. There are no hard & fast rules however but it is worth following suggestions 1) and 2) above.
There are many ways of achieving sweetness in wine and many of the world’s wine regions have their own specialities like TBA Riesling, Barsac, Monbazillac, Tokaji from Hungary but I’m going to use Sauternes as my main dessert or pudding wine example since it is considered by many to be the world’s best sweet wine. All these wines are produced in the same way.
Sauternes is typically produced mainly from Sémillon grapes that have been affected by ‘botrytis cinerea’, a fungal infection also known as noble rot, which in the right conditions makes the grapes shrivel on the vine, leading to very concentrated and sweet juice. Sémillon gives the wine body and tropical fruit flavours; Sauvignon Blanc which is often added to Sauternes brings acidity and citrus flavours and the best Sauternes wines include a small portion of Muscadelle which add lovely floral aromas to the wine. Flavours in the wine will include a range of citrus flavours like lime, grapefruit, tangerines and lemon zest, honey, apricots and often mango, pineapple and barley sugar.
You can pair Sauternes and other noble rot-affected wines with most desserts but in my opinion they work best with lighter desserts such as fruit tarts, lighter chocolate puddings with fresh fruits such as raspberries, cherries or strawberries. Desserts with any of the typical fruit flavours of Sauternes will match as well e.g. citrus-flavoured puddings and apple pie. For heavier desserts with lots of cream you could still drink Sauternes but it must have a high level of mouth-watering acidity to cut through the fat in the dish. Similarly for desserts with salt like a salted caramel brownie, make sure your Sauternes has good acidity because the salt will reduce the acidity of your wine and make it seem quite flat and even flavourless.
Tokaji is typically sweeter and more marmalade-y than Sauternes – it is a great match with a crème caramel and any other caramel-based desserts.
Sauternes will also pair well with many blue cheeses like Roquefort – and with foie gras for those with a preference for more savoury dishes but as mentioned above, be wary if you plan to switch to a dry wine, especially a red, after it.
Ice wine also known as Eiswein is wine produced from grapes left to freeze on the vines; when the grapes are pressed only the sweet juices that have not frozen are used in the wines. Ice wine should also have good acidity to prevent them being too sweet and to help them pair well with most puddings. Often made from white grapes like Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, increasingly ice wine is being produced from black grapes like Cabernet Franc, Merlot and even Austria’s Blauen Zweigelt which makes for a very elegant ice wine.
Ice wines are quite low in alcohol at about 10% ABV and go well with most desserts – but I would recommend white ice wine with fruit-based puddings and red ice wine with anything chocolate-based.
Some savoury dishes that will go well with ice wine include rich patés and blue cheeses but remember to pick an ice wine with good acidity – and be cautious if moving back onto dry wine.
Vins doux naturels or VDNs such as Banyuls, Rivesaltes and Rasteau are sweet Grenache-based fortified wines. Grenache’s high alcohol lends itself to fortified wines and they can be made from the black or white grapes. Like port, VDNs are fortified with spirit to stop fermentation before all the sugar has converted into alcohol. It’s less sweet than a dessert wine, lighter and less alcoholic than port at ABV of 15% to 18%.
VDNs from Grenache Blanc are similar to dessert wines in terms of flavours but are lighter in style and, like white ice wines, are well-suited to fruit-based desserts. VDNs from Grenache Noir are like a light version of ruby port combining fresh and fruity berry flavours with warm spices and chocolate. These spices complement Christmas pudding especially, mince pies, fruit cake and chocolate-based desserts like chocolate mousse, brownies and chocolate truffles but they go equally well with cheese including Stilton.
Some VDNs like Rivesaltes Ambré are made in an oxidised style and display more nutty, roasted & raisin flavours (think tawny port or Madeira in style). These also suit fruit cakes and nutty desserts.
Port is produced by adding grape-based alcohol to interrupt the fermentation process, effectively killing off the yeast in the grape juice so that it can no longer interact with the sugar to produce alcohol. This means that some unfermented sugar is retained in the wine making it a naturally sweet wine with an ABV of about 19% – 22%. the level of sweetness depending on how soon the fermentation is halted.
The warm fruity style of bottle-aged ruby ports matches well with chocolate desserts, chocolate & fruit desserts like Black Forest Gateau, and also with Christmas Pudding and similar dried fruit puddings. The acidity of the port helps to balance the richness of the mincemeat in mince pies.
The nutty flavours of tawny port that develop during its ageing in oak barrels also complement the rich fruit & nut flavours of Christmas pudding, fruit cakes including Christmas cake and mince pies. Tawny port can also be a great match for creamy desserts like trifle, crème brûlée and crème caramel, bread & butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, ginger cake, mince pies, panettone and nutty.
Now, it may seem as if this next suggestion doesn’t really fit the rules as it is a much lighter option than typical dessert wines and it is slightly sparkling but it really does work with any dessert. The lightness, the bubbles and the mouth-watering acidity of Moscato d’Asti, cut through the richness of trifle, other creamy desserts and rich chocolate puddings. The high acidity and fruity style of the wine also make it a great pairing for lemon-based desserts, the crisp wine making the food seem softer and less tart. And it’s lovely to have a sip of Moscato d’Asti whilst eating a slice of birthday cake and especially almond cake.
Moscato d’Asti might not be something that you have ever considered before but, trust me, its light body and gentle spritz make it a really refreshing drink to have with desserts despite it being as sweet as port.
And on the subject of sparkling wines…
I know Prosecco doesn’t fit the classic definition of sweet wine (most of it is medium dry even if labelled Extra Dry but the acidity and bubbles can make the wine seem drier) but it’s almost Christmas at the time of writing and Prosecco is the classic partner for the Italian Christmas speciality, Panettone. However I know some Italians who swear by the afore-mentioned Moscato because its slight sweetness is the perfect match with the not-too-sweet panettone.
There are of course other sweet wines which have not been mentioned but whichever sweet wine you choose to drink with dessert, enjoy!
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