OK, I’m going out on a bit of a limb here. I have forever been a little perplexed about the complex issue of pairing wines with dessert. Just when I think I’ve got it right, I’m stumped by another complete mismatch that throws it all up in the air again.
You see there really are no hard and fast rules to this one. There are a few examples that time and again have proven to be accurate, for instance, botrytized sweet wines such as late harvest Semillon and Riesling not working at all with heavy, rich chocolate desserts.
What one wants when pairing something off the dessert menu with various wines is a match that is quite opposite. Not possessing a sweet tooth at all has made the rare times I have had to attempt this course match even more tricky. One rule I live by is to go completely against the norm and pick something that you really can’t see matching. The most basic element of this is the yin and yang effect. Opposites do attract. Always try savoury as a foil to sweet.
I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert in this most difficult of matches. The amount of times I have got it wrong is countless. Either the wine is completely swallowed up by the stronger flavours of the dessert, or vice-versa. Rarely have the two met perfectly, and extremely rarely have they met spectacularly.
I have had the most success with the pairing of richer, darker desserts with bolder, bigger wines. Being a red wine lover, I believe in continuing to drink the fuller bodied styles enjoyed with your main course with the dessert course, especially dense cakes and chocolate desserts with layers of richness. This is a safe bet and a wonderful match. Try a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon with a thick, chocolate cake. Yum!
Many punters simply believe that just because it’s time for “sweets” it is important to enjoy them with a sweet dessert wine. This is almost always the wrong choice. Acidity is the important element to consider here, as it is when matching wines with savoury courses. A wine with fine, high acidity often pairs best with a fruit dish, which also has the natural acidity. Another element to consider is the amount of intensity present. The more intense the dessert flavours, the more intense the wine should be.
The biggest factor to consider is the sweetness itself. A dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dessert.
Looking at some classic pairing examples, yes, Port is the obvious choice for rich chocolate desserts. It has sweetness, viscousness and depth and is a perfect match. If you stay on the classic red wine route, Grenache is a proud pairer, as is Shiraz. Just choose a fruitier, medium to full-bodied wine rather than a more structured old-world European wine.
With spicy and fruit filled desserts, such as pear and apple, great choices include late-harvest Sauternes and, (often quite the spectacular match), vintage rose champagne.
Vanilla based desserts and custards with buttery, rich flavours do best with slightly sweeter white wines such as late-harvest Rieslings, and demi-sec (medium-dry) champagne. Something a little more neutral, never overbearing.
Champagne has certainly been my go to for the lighter styles of dessert that I sometimes choose to end my meals with. Try a blanc-de-blanc champagne with mille-feuile or tiramisu. Surprisingly perfect!
But the biggest revelation and the one beverage that has bowled me over in its dessert matching ability has been Japanese Sake. Seriously good with both savoury and sweet desserts, its uniform balance between fruity and dry along with its perfect lick of pure, natural acidity makes it quite profound with almost any dessert.
Ice-Cream is a super tough one to match with wines. Often very sweet, you need some viscosity and richness in your liquor match here. Straying from the wine option, a nice Italian Amaro such as Montenegro would do the trick, or even a delicious sweet Bourbon.
As for fruit sorbets, I have yet to find anything that can match their sweet tartness. Best left to enjoy their sharp freshness alone, along with the accompanying brain freeze that inevitably follows.
Sake is also, to my mind, by far the best match with cheeses. Many times, wine has been overpowered by a soft, ripe cheese or a strong blue. But try these with sake. Oh My! This is one of the very best matches made in heaven. You will most definitely, not be sorry giving this match a go. Champagne too, another perfect cheese match, the better-quality vintage Champagne the better. So here, I am making the call. I believe that Sake and fine Champagne are the best all-round matches for the dessert course.
Don’t hesitate – what’s stopping you. There is no better time to experiment in such an indulgent manner that right now – God Speed!