Beer & Wine Wine

Yes, You Can Drink Dessert Wine with Dinner

Get sweet on pairing these bottles with savory food.

photo of sweet wines with plates
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Liquor.com / Laura Sant

If you aren’t already a fan of dessert wines, you may be tempted to shun the entire category as being “too sweet” to enjoy at the end of the meal, let alone during it. As the name implies, these wines pack a higher sugar level than your garden-variety chardonnay or cabernet, but the best also have secret weapons up their sleeves, including lively acidity and nuanced, layered flavors. This means they can take on dishes that come before you tuck into a gooey molten chocolate cake or rustic French apple tart.

Keep It Balanced

When it comes to selecting dessert wines with dinner, you can use the same philosophy you’d use with dry wines, says Jennifer Foucher, the head sommelier at Fiola in Washington, D.C. “Pairings are about balance,” she says. “If something is spicy, the sweetness cools it down, [and] if a dish contains nuts, a sweet wine with a nuttier profile is similar yet also a contrast.” She loves to serve chestnut soup with nutty oloroso sherry and fiery Szechuan noodles with German auslese riesling, a dessert wine produced with hand-selected grapes affected with botrytis, a “noble rot” that causes them to become raisinated, concentrated and distinct. And it’s really the accompaniment to the dish, such as the sauce or seasoning, that you’re complementing or contrasting with the wine.

“Heightened sugar levels [in dessert wines] can be a great foil for salt, fat and sour flavors found in food,” says Braithe Tidwell, the sommelier and beverage director of Brennan’s in New Orleans. Classic dessert wine pairings that can bookend a meal are a foie gras first course with sauternes, a botrytized wine from Bordeaux, and port served with an after-dinner cheese plate. But she believes they can easily be served throughout the course of a meal. Moelleux, another wine affected by botrytis that hails from France’s Loire Valley, works well with goat cheese pasta, she says.

Remember that a little of these wines goes a long way, however. Tidwell recommends a three-ounce pour—just enough to make it through each bite of the dish. “This is a great way to try something new … without committing to a whole glass,” she says. For fortified wines like port, sherry or madeira, in which brandy or a neutral spirit is added before or after fermentation, Foucher believes two ounces are plenty. 

Pour Some Port

Port, arguably the world’s most famous sweet wine, is made by adding brandy to fermenting wine, killing the yeast, halting fermentation and upping the ABV. And while it goes amazingly well with a chunk of high-quality dark chocolate, it can flex its muscles elsewhere during the meal. “Port has a weight, richness and umami quality that other wines, particularly dry wines, don’t have,” says Gregory Doody, the president & CEO of Vineyard Brands, which includes Warre’s port in its portfolio. 

Because port is an intensely flavored wine, it’s best matched with equally flavored and weighty dishes, as anything delicate assuredly will be overpowered, says Doody. It also tends to work better with complementary rather than contrasting pairings. Fruity ruby port is great with cheeses like Stilton and Gorgonzola; the caramel and nutty notes in tawny port work with foie gras, duck and veal; and complex LBV and vintage port is amazing with beef or venison. But don’t overlook white port, an outlier and recent addition to the category, which is lovely with olives and Marcona almonds as an aperitivo or served with smoked fish.

Ice Wine Is Cool

If there’s one category of dessert wine that can take you from hors d'oeuvres to appetizer to entree and beyond, it might just be Canadian ice wine. Grapes frozen on the vines at -10 C are harvested in the middle of the night; the water in the grapes freezes, but its sugars and solids do not. The resulting wines are sweet, with a gorgeous purity of fruit, balanced vibrant acidity and a clean finish that goes with sweet, salty and savory dishes and cleanses the palate in-between bites. 

“You’re going to get the same flavor profiles that you would from a table wine [made] with the same grape varietals; they’re just going to be more concentrated and with added sweetness,” says Kayla Mudford, the estate chef for Inniskillin winery. This means you truly can treat ice wine as a table wine. Try an Inniskillin riesling ice wine with a lobster bisque or pear and bleu cheese pizza, Vidal ice wine with pâté, Gold Vidal ice wine with French onion soup or smoky pork barbecue, and cabernet franc ice wine with filet mignon. 

Randi Dufour, the vice president of luxury export sales for Arterra Wines Canada, which operates wine brands including Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs, also cites the ingredients in Asian cuisine as having a particular affinity for Canadian ice wine, including pork with citrus, poultry with chiles and soy, miso, or mirin marinades. All should be served well-chilled in two-ounce pours. And if you’re still not sold, Dufour suggests a change in semantics. “Maybe we all need to stop calling it a dessert wine and refer to it as a sweet or ‘rich’ wine,” he says, because “if you pass on dessert, the opportunity to taste this liquid gold is gone.”

Know What Won’t Work

So is there any savory dish a dessert wine can’t handle? Even though you might be tempted to offset the heat from the thin slices of jalapeño that sit atop hamachi crudo, Foucher doesn’t recommend raw or strongly flavored seafood. “Sweet and ocean/fishy flavors don’t sit well together,” she says. Tidwell steers clear of extremes like bitter or lean dishes but says these bottles are incredibly versatile otherwise. “The more you play with them, the more you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” she says.