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What Kind of Wine to Drink With Dessert

It happens all the time. You’ve got wine on the table for dinner, and suddenly it’s time to move on to dessert. But since you’ve not finished drinking, you just keep the glass going straight into the next course.

Curiously, that wine just doesn’t seem to be as appealing with chocolate cake as it was with your steak. What happened?

Finding the right wine to go with sweet food is something that most of us have little experience with. Sure we might know the old adage that white wine goes well with fish or red wine goes well with meat, but what goes well with sugar?

Along the way, the idea of pairing red wine and chocolate together took hold, and hasn’t let up. But as you may have discovered yourself, dry red wine and chocolate do not go together. Nor do sweet strawberries and dry Champagne. Not if you want to actually enjoy the positive characteristics of the individual components.

A sip of dry wine without any perceptible sweetness will turn bitter and sour when taken with something sweet alongside it. The fact is that as soon as you add sugar to the equation, everything you liked about the wine will disappear, and you’ll be left with something far less enjoyable (and far less palatable).

That’s because food changes wine. Not actually, but introducing food’s flavors alongside wine’s flavors will accentuate or mask certain qualities of each component.

Pairing wine and dessert isn’t hard, however. Look for a wine with some sweetness, and the whole thing can come together beautifully. And there’s no need for you to let the word “sweetness” or the term “dessert wine” scare you. This isn’t about wine coolers or grandma’s elderberry wine, after all. A proper dessert wine, when you pair it with any sweet food, will taste less sweet than it might on its own. Think of your wine as a condiment to the food. With dessert, it’s like a syrup being drizzled on top of the featured dish. It adds a contrast while supporting the food at the same time.

Ready for a crash course in dessert wine options? Here we go:

Sweetened Bubbles

Adding sugar during wine making is typically either frowned upon or illegal (in some places), but did you know that some Champagne has sugar added to it (legally)? Because Champagne is typically fermented completely dry and has a terrifically high acidity, an added dose of some sugar-soaked-wine is typically the final part of the winemaking process. Depending on the amount of sugar, Champagne will be dry (brut), semi-sweet, (sec or demi-sec) or sweet (doux).

Late Harvest Wines

Many dessert wines are the result of intentionally overripening the fruit, in order to extract extra sugar. This works well, provided the grapes have enough acidity to balance the high sugar levels. Grapes destined for dessert wine stay on the vine late as much as 2 or 3 months after the other grapes have been harvested. Classic examples include Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Muscat, and might have labels expressing “late harvest” in various ways, such as vendange tardive (French: “late harvest”), spätlese (German: “late harvest”) or auslese (“select harvest,” even later).

Fortified Wines

Fortified wines, in all honesty, are not always sweet. Sherry sees occasional bottling of sweetness, but it’s Port and Madeira which really stand out in this category. Each produces wines that express flavors ranging from candied fruits to nuts to caramel.

… and those were just a few examples. Look out for sweet wines made from dried grapes, frozen grapes, or, yes, even rotten grapes.

D. Baer