If the thought of dessert wine brings up memories of pre-legal hangovers or cooking sherry, it's time to give dessert wines another chance. Dessert wines can be a sophisticated addition to any menu. We interviewed Matthew Weston, sommelier and beverage manager for the Royal Palms resort for some insight on the sweet stuff.
Chow Bella: What types of desserts should a dessert wine be served with? What to stay away from? Matthew Weston: Any dessert and every dessert should be served with wine. The rule of thumb to remember is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. The sweet dessert will make the wine taste bitter if you are not careful.
If you have a great wine to serve but are unsure, add a cheese course and serve that great port you have been saving with it instead.
CB: What types of wine work best for dessert wines (late harvest vs. fortified etc.)? What are the differences between the styles? MW: I like to think of dessert wine as falling into three broad categories based upon how the sweetness is achieved.
1. In some wines the fermentation is stopped before the wine is fully fermented, usually by filtration. These wines are lower in alcohol and lower in sweetness. They taste of fresh grapes.The classic example would be Moscato d'Asti. These wines are not enough to be served with many desserts other than fresh fruit, with which they are delightful.
2. Fortified wines. This includes Ports, Sherries, and still Muscats. These wines start fermentation normally then a dollop of high-proof alcohol is dropped in which stops the fermentation and the wines are left with sweetness from the grape. These wines range from tawny ports which are lightly sweet (pair these with not-too-sweet nutty desserts) to ruby and vintage ports (pair these with strong cheese and dark chocolate). Fortified wines can pair well with dessert but you need to test out the pairing since the wines can vary so much.
3. Late-harvest wines. These are universally fully sweet, although the sweetness and alcoholic levels can vary greatly. Main styles are late-harvest wines themselves and ice wines. Ice wine is usually the sweetest and the simplest. Bright racy lemony sweet wine to pair with any sweet cream dessert. Since the wine itself is simpler the pairing is easier. Sauternes from Bordeaux is the quintessential late-harvest wine; in addition to lemony sweetness you have layers of toasted nuts, marzipan, floral notes. Lastly in this category are late-harvest Rieslings from Germany or elsewhere. These tend to be the raciest so they cut through sweet or rich desserts like squeezing a lemon over cheesecake.
All three major styles (and really, there are dozens of styles if not hundreds) have their place at the table. I highly recommend Moscato d'Asti before the meal with fresh fruit. Late-harvest wines are the most dessert friendly. They pair with most non-chocolate desserts. It is hard to go wrong.
CB: In the past, dessert wines haven't garnered that much attention, do you see that changing? MW: Only a little. When someone tells me "I do not like sweet wines," I always ask "do you like sweet foods"? We recommend pairings with our desserts and try to delight our guests with dessert wines but it is an uphill struggle against a perception that coffee goes best with dessert. CB: Is there one country that really excels at producing dessert wines? MW: Austria. Blessed with a wonderful natural environment and a wine-culture there are many great value late-harvest wines from Austria. They tend to be very sweet with a purity of fruit flavor.
CB: If you're new to dessert wines, is there a good way to purchase an enjoyable selection? MW: Many restaurants offer tasting flights of dessert wines. Like all wines dessert wines can be confusing so getting an idea of what you like before you start buying bottles and cases is probably wise.
CB: Do you need any special glasses to serve dessert wine? MW: Never let this stop you! Every wine benefits from being served in the proper vessel but even if you do not have special glassware dessert wines complete a great meal. Would you not serve dessert if you did not have the correct fork? Of course not! Pick a glass that allows the wine to show its aroma. Fortified dessert wines do not benefit from too big a glass as the higher alcohol can be a bit off-putting in the larger vessels but you can serve late-harvest and ice wines in Bordeaux glasses and it can be quite delightful to be overwhelmed by all the heady fruit aromas. CB: What temperature(s) should you serve dessert wine at? How much do you pour? MW: Port wines and dessert-style sherries should be only slightly chilled (around 55 F). Too warm, and the alcohol becomes too prominent, too cold and the wine becomes bitter, like cold tea. Just below room temperature is a good rule of thumb. Late-harvest, ice wines, and fortified Muscats should be fully chilled. To fully appreciate the nuances of flavor it helps to let the wine warm up a bit in your glass but most guests love the crispness they get when the wine is cold (40F). Serve these at the temperature you prefer your white wines. In the restaurant we pour 3 oz. At home I would recommend less (1-2 oz.). This allows your guests to sip slowly and refill with chilled wine.
CB: What prices ranges can be expected for dessert wines and how long can you store a dessert wine? MW: You can pick up a delicious half bottle of late-harvest wine for $20. This is a great bargain in the wine world compared to the labor that went into creating it and the joy you get out of it. The sky is the limit to how much you spend. How long they last depends on the style. Vintage Port loses flavor in a day or two. Most dessert wines will last longer than a bottle of still wine. A couple weeks is a good bet for most late-harvest wines. Taste frequently to ensure it is still delicious!