You’ve stocked up on the best wines for your holiday meal, and you might be tempted to keep the glasses of gamay flowing all night. But the dessert table calls for sweeter styles of wine to match its flavors.
“People get nervous about having too much sugar, so they back away and try to pair [desserts] with a still table wine,” says Kat Thomas, the head sommelier at Ada’s Wine Bar in Las Vegas. This approach, however, could result in a faulty pairing. “The dryness of the wine will cut into the dessert and it will taste off,” says Kilolo Strobert, the proprietor of Fermented Grapes in Brooklyn, New York.
So what should you serve instead? Aim for a wine with a sweetness level that echoes or exceeds that of the dessert. Dessert wines encompass an extremely broad range of styles from around the world, including sweet wines made with late-harvest or botrytis-infected grapes and fortified wines such as madeira and port.
Some classic pairings include chocolate and port or sauternes and crème brûlee, but you should feel free to experiment.
“It can be a magical, even enchanted, experience,” says Thomas.
What Are Sweet and Dessert Wines?
Sweetness in wine is measured by residual sugar, or the sugars that are left unfermented in the finished wine. However, the amount of sugar can vary widely and, according to Thomas, perception of sweetness can be affected by factors including tannins, acidity, and the dessert with which you pair the wine.
Wines that are perceived as sweet can be created through certain natural processes, like harvesting high-sugar grape varieties later in the season at peak ripeness. Other techniques involve drying out the grapes on a straw mat to raisinate, allowing grapes to freeze on the vine, or permitting them to become infected with the Botrytis cinerea fungus. In each of these methods, the grape is dehydrated and the remaining sugars concentrate as water is removed.
Fortified wines, meanwhile, become sweet when a spirit is added to the base wine during fermentation, killing off yeast and leaving behind a higher percentage of unfermented residual sugar. In another technique called chaptalization, sugar from external sources are added to the grape must, while süssreserve is a process in which sweet, unfermented grape juice from the initial pressing is reserved, then added back to the fermented wine before bottling to increase sugar levels.
Dessert wines include a wide range of styles from around the world. With that said, these are some of the most common categories.
Ice wine (eiswein in Germany, or icewine in Canada) is made from grapes that are allowed to freeze while still on the vine, requiring temperatures of around 20ºF. Once harvested, the frozen grapes are pressed into must, which is used to create a very concentrated and sweet wine with a relatively low ABV of around 10–12%. Because the juice is so sweet, fermentation can often take three to six months.
Although the style originated in Germany, Canada is the world’s largest producer today. Ice wine can have up to 220 grams of sugar (almost double that of a Coca-Cola). For this reason, Kate Leahy, the author of Wine Style, likes it with an extremely sweet dessert like pecan pie. “It can hang,” she says. A common savory pairing for ice wine is cheese, and Thomas notes that it works with a plain cheesecake.
To produce fortified wine like port, sherry, and madeira, winemakers add a spirit to the base wine during or after the fermentation process, often brandy. These bottlings will have a higher alcohol content (usually around 17–20% ABV), more similar to a liqueur than a table wine.
Many fortified wines boast both dry and sweet styles, which will depend on when winemakers choose to add the spirit during the fermentation process. Adding the spirit during fermentation (as opposed to after) will kill off yeast sooner, leaving a larger amount of unfermented residual sugar behind and resulting in a sweeter fortified wine.
Created in Portugal to preserve red wines on the long journey from Portugal to England, port is one of the most storied styles of fortified wine. More than 80 Portuguese grape varieties can be used, including touriga franca, touriga nacional, and tinta roriz (also known as tempranillo). A distilled grape spirit, usually brandy, is then added to the base wine during fermentation.
Port comes in various styles, but the most common dessert options are rich tawny port and more fruit-forward ruby port. The classic dessert pairing for port is chocolate, and Leahy likes to join it with a rich flourless chocolate cake. “Port is like chocolate-covered cherries to me,” says Thomas, who advises complementing port and chocolate cake with a raspberry sauce.
First things first: Not all sherry is sweet, and in fact, most styles lean dry. The fortified wine encompasses a broad category made with white-wine grapes grown in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, predominantly near the town of Jerez. The wine is fortified with neutral grape spirits, and a unique system called a solera is then used to age the liquid. During this process, younger sherries are added to more mature ones and progress through a series of barrels, with some of the oldest wines eventually removed for bottling and the barrel refilled again with younger stocks.
Moscatel and pedro ximénez (PX) grapes are commonly used for sweet dessert sherries, and can often be found in varietal bottlings. A nutty oloroso-style sherry, which is aged in the absence of flor (a layer of yeast that develops on top of many sherries in the solera), is typically made with palomino grapes, and can lean sweet or dry depending on whether sweeter moscatel is blended in. Cream sherries, meanwhile, are sweet sherries; they are essentially olorosos that are most often blended with sweeter pedro ximénez grapes.
“Sherry has this underlying nutty quality, no matter the style,” says Strobert. As such, nutty desserts are generally a great pairing with a slightly sweet style like an oloroso sherry. “I would serve it with some kind of a candied toffee cake,” says Thomas.
When it comes to dessert sherries, pedro ximénez is a rich, thick, and syrupy style that is best enjoyed on its own or as part of the dessert. “I would pour that over some vanilla gelato and you’re done,” says Thomas.
Madeira is made on a small Portuguese island of the same name.The wine is fortified with brandy and subjected to forced oxidation and heating, resulting in a rich wine that can last for centuries. Madeira comes in a range of styles, spanning from dry (seco) to sweet (doce).
When you’re serving madeira as a dessert wine, you’ll want to look for bottlings made with bual and malmsey grapes. “There’s a dried fruit component to bual madeira, as well as an acidity and freshness, that can really stand up to some of these richer desserts like a chocolate bread pudding,” says Thomas. These same components would also make it a natural match for a fruitcake, she says, or any rich chocolate dessert. Malvasia, also known as malmsey, is the richest style of madeira and can typically be reserved for pouring over ice cream or sipping.
Grapes used for noble rot wine are infected with the Botrytis cinerea fungus (or botrytized), which weakens the skins and causes them to dehydrate, producing complex honeyed flavors and golden-hued wines.
Popular types of noble rot wines, which are harvested later in the season, include Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú and offerings from France’s Sauternes appellation. However, noble rot wines can be made in other regions and styles, often using riesling, chenin blanc, sémillon, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat, and other varieties. These wines tend to be expensive because of their labor-intensive production process. In general, they will pair well with citrusy and fruit-driven desserts, says Thomas.
Sauternes comes from the Bordeaux region of France and is made with grapes that have been affected by noble rot, like sémillon, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle, resulting in high-acid wines with fruity and honeyed notes. A common savory pairing for sauternes is seared foie gras. For dessert, Leahy says a buttery apple pie or galette will echo that creamy richness, and the acidity of the sauternes will complement the natural acidity of the apples.
Sauternes also pairs well with custard desserts like crème brulée. “It’s French on French,” explains Strobert. “The whole structure of the wine is meant to help work through those kinds of rich flavors, like French toast and maple syrup,” says Thomas.
Tokaj is the name of a wine-growing region in Hungary’s northeastern corner, and Tokaji refers to wines that are made from grapes in its vineyards on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Although any wine produced from six permitted varieties in Tokaj may be called Tokaji, the region is most well-known for its sweet wines, which are affected by noble rot.
When most sommeliers mention Tokaji, they’re referring to Tokaji Aszú, which is made from botrytized grapes (most commonly furmint and hárslevelű) and must have a minimum of 120 grams per liter of residual sugar. Tokaji Eszencia, while more rarefied and expensive, is well-known for its low alcohol content at just 3–4% ABV and decadent sweetness that sometimes includes 450 grams of sugar per liter. Leahy says Tokaji Aszú’s Old World honeyed flavors might lend themselves well to a panettone, or another enriched holiday bread with dried fruits and nuts.
As the name implies, late harvest wines refer to bottlings made from grapes that have been harvested later in the wine-making season, often in cooler climates, or those that have dried after harvest or been affected by noble rot. As the grapes stay on the vine, they pass their peak ripeness before eventually dehydrating, which concentrates the sugars. Technically, any grape can be harvested later in the season, but common grapes used in late-harvest wines include riesling, moscato, zinfandel, chenin blanc, and sémillon.
Thomas suggests a sweeter late-harvest riesling for a pumpkin pie, as its honeyed notes tend to work with the seasonal spices. “Pumpkin pie is just so spicy,” she says. “You don’t want to overwhelm it and compete with it. You want to bring something that’s going to accentuate all those flavors anyway.”
Both Strobert and Leahy particularly like sweet Italian reds with chocolate desserts. The tannins in chocolate are high, explains Strobert, so the tannins will complement each other. She also notes that sweet red wines will work well with berry desserts.
Straw Mat or Straw Wine
Unlike late harvest and noble rot wine grapes, which are dried on the vine, straw wine grapes are cut off of the vine, halting the ripening process, then laid out on a straw mat to raisinate for 60 to 90 days before winemaking begins. The fruit juices concentrate as the grapes dry, but the grapes also maintain their acidity. The method of making straw wine likely dates to ancient Greece, but you’ll find them all over the world today, where they go by names including passito in Italy, strohwein in Germany, shilfwein in Austria, or vin de paille in France.
“Passitos have this really lovely acidity that helps them work with a range of desserts,” says Leahy. She notes that the versatility of raisin wine would pair well with a classic holiday cookie platter. “They can hold up to a lot of little nibbles on the plate without getting lost,” she says. “You really can’t go wrong with any Italian dessert.”
Sparkling Sweet Wine
If you want to serve something bubbly with dessert, you’ll find a range of styles to suit whatever you’re serving. Strobert is a fan of a sweet Champagne (look for demi-sec or doux) with warm fall spices that you might find in a pumpkin loaf or a cinnamon roll. “It has that brioche and that toastiness,” she says. “Champagne goes with everything,” adds Thomas.
Moscato d’Asti, a sparkling white made from the moscato grape, is a great palate cleanser before desserts, says Leahy, and can also be paired with citrus treats like lemon tarts. She likes a sparkling Italian red like Lambrusco or Brachetto d’Acqui to serve with berry desserts.
“Apple cobblers, apple pie, cranberry-apple, sour cherries, all of those flavors go well with sweeter-style sparkling wines,” says Leahy.