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.