If you’re like me, you have a tendency to shy away from dessert wines for fear that you’ll be greeted with something that tastes like it is more suited to topping a pancake than finishing off a good dinner. Of course, that’s not fair to the many delightful dessert wines out there—from light whites to sweet reds, sparkling to fortified.
And those wines are best enjoyed paired with food. So, I asked Williamsburg Winery winemaker Matthew Meyer for some expert insight into how to go about that. The basic mantra of pairing “sweet with sweet” is a good starting place, he says. But select those sweet eats with care. Simpler is almost aways better.
Dessert wines, in the broadest terms, are just what they sound like—wines meant to be enjoyed with dessert. They are generally higher in residual sugar and often have a higher alcohol content and more intense flavor profiles. So, you don’t want to bombard the palate by serving a sweet wine with a diva of a dessert.
“Chefs come up with these really amazing desserts,” Meyer says, “but they don’t really go with a dessert wine because they are over-the-top with caramel and nuts and chocolate and etc.” As with any wine and food pairing, the wine should complement rather than compete. So, avoid anything coated in mountains of frosting. And, whatever you do, steer clear of ice cream, says Meyer.
Instead of towering sugary creations, he suggests, think mildly sweet, creamy and somewhat understated desserts like crème brûlée, cheesecake and flan. A simple almond cake or a rustic pastry made with fresh fruit like apples or pears—such as a classic tart Tatin—would also be lovely choices. Those subtle cream- or egg-based textures, salty-sweet elements, buttery pastry and natural caramelization allow the wine to sing.
Chocolate might seem a tricky road to travel, but if you think of flavors that pair well with chocolate in cooking, selecting a wine to go with a chocolate dessert becomes a simpler task. “If you are doing really dark, deep chocolate then you want to gravitate to your fruit dessert wines like a raspberry merlot because those raspberries and strawberries and chocolate—that just works,” says Meyer. A sherry or a port would be good choices.
Dessert wines can also marry beautifully with certain cheeses and other savory delights—particularly if those foods are pungent and salty or have a high-fat content (think Stilton or brie cheeses, for example). That’s because those powerful flavor profiles and rich mouthfeel are matched punch-for-punch by the sweetness of the wine.
“Try a really good sauternes or late harvest,” Meyer offers, “with a strong cheese. And then, one of the greatest pairings ever is foie gras and sauternes.” The distinctive umami of foie gras is widely considered a classic counterpart to sauternes, an Old World French sweet white made with sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle grapes.
From Williamsburg Winery’s cellar, discover their 2021 Petite Fleur, a blend of vidal blanc and muscat with a “great balance between the floral nuances of jasmine, honeysuckle and rose’s along with the vibrant orange, plum, white peach, apricot and a touch of tropical fruit,” and the Vin Licoreux de Framboise, a blend of barrel-aged and stainless steel red wine and raspberry.
Learn more at WilliamsburgWinery.com.