Americans don’t typically reach for dessert wines. While wine trends come and go, dessert wines have yet to have a moment of popularity in the modern era, although the founding fathers did drink Madeira in 1776 to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Sommeliers agree that the biggest misconception with sweet wine is that it’s all overbearingly sweet; but the category is more versatile than many expect, stretching beyond after-dinner enjoyment.
Try it, you’ll like it
Dino Cocco, wine director at E3 Chophouse Nashville, has a lengthy list of dessert wines on his menu and often offers small pours of dessert wine to guests who seem interested, in an effort to encourage them to try something new. “Dessert wines are delicious, fun, and so often overlooked,” he says. “I often find myself bringing multiple bottles to a table and taking people on a journey of the different styles of wine, to break down the barriers for them.” Cocco notes that dessert wine labels can be confusing, especially when a style like sherry can be produced to be dry or sweet, sometimes with different grapes.
At wine bar and bottle shop DECANTsf, co-founder and sommelier Simi Grewal also likes to surprise and delight guests with complimentary pours of dessert wine, perhaps to accompany a cheese platter, whenever she has a bottle open behind the bar.
“We find that the best way to teach people about the varying profiles surrounding sweet wine is to dig into conversation about what they enjoy eating, and find a sweet wine pairing that might surprise them,” she says.
Pairing suggestions are key
“I think the younger generations of drinkers are much more open to exploring food and wine pairings as an experience,” Grewal says. “Pouring a sweet wine with a savory course or at the start of a menu to create a surprising pairing is a great way to pique interest.” For example, many sweet wines (like Beerenauslese style wines from Germany and Austria) also feature prominent acidity, which means they may pair well with rich, creamy, or earthy dishes. “These wines can provide ripe citrus and tart peach flavors, and are balanced by a pronounced thread of sweetness that helps to cool down the heat of intense spicy items like hot wings, or to lighten the intensity of creamy items like blue cheese,” Grewal explains.
Listing specific pairing suggestions directly on the menu is a helpful nudge for diners too. At Tasting House in Los Gatos, every dish on the menu comes with a wine pairing suggestion, whether it’s a vintage port for warm chocolate lava cake, sweet Madeira with tiramisu, or Sauternes with housemade beignets. “The dessert wines in our program need to pair perfectly with the sweetness levels of these dishes,” wine director and executive chef Ryan Fillhardt says. He typically recommends Port with chocolate, Madeira with less sweet desserts or desserts that contain alcohol, and late harvest wines with cheeses, pastries, and berry desserts.
At Sunday Vinyl in Denver, one especially playful and popular pairing is simply labeled “Mac and Cheese” on the dessert menu. This item pairs two icons of the French Jura – the sweet, fortified Francois Rousset-Martin Macvin and Comté cheese – for a memorable and delicious match.
Share your personal favorites
According to drinks professionals, sharing personal preferences is an authentic way to connect with guests and build trust and rapport, especially if your favorite wine isn’t as well known. Cocco notes that Port and Sauternes are more popular than Sherry and Madeira at E3 Chophouse because the latter two aren’t as well understood. But he names Michele Chiarlo Moscato as his personal favorite dessert wine, paired with crème brûlée and fresh berries, for its lower alcohol content and bright effervescence. “It’s on the sweeter side with notes of apricot, honey, orange zest and peach with aromatics bursting out of the glass,” he says. “The syrupy nature is broken up by the small bubbles and gives the rich wine a lightness on the palate.
Grewal names Madeira Bual as her personal favorite dessert wine. “Its bracing acidity and deep complexity make it a perfect pairing for many hearty savory dishes, cheeses, and a wide range of desserts.”
Rarities attract attention
Sunday Vinyl has arguably one of the best wine lists in Denver and they have really invested in expanding their selection of unique and rare sweet wines with bottles that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. For example, there’s 2009 Chateau D’Yquem Sauternes for $54 an ounce, and 2009 Royal Tokaji for $90 an ounce. There’s even 1922 Seppeltsfield “Para Rare Tawny” served by the eyedropper (1 ml) for $30.
“These selections are once in a lifetime wines,” says Carlin Karr, wine director for Frasca Hospitality Group. He is especially enamored with Royal Tokaji, in part due to its fascinating history as a gift to end wars. “The sheer joy that you see on a guest’s face when they have it is so satisfying,” he says. “I have never seen anyone disappointed.”