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In honor of Valentine’s Day – a day when I always have dessert – I thought I would provide some tips on pairing wine with dessert. Even if you’re not celebrating Valentine’s Day, these tips will come in handy whether dining out or in.

The most basic rule when it comes to pairing wine and dessert is that you want the wine to be a bit sweeter than the dessert. But what if, like me, you detest sweet wines? Then play by your own rules! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen advice to avoid Champagne with dessert (especially wedding cake) because the sweetness of the dessert will make the Champagne seem astringent. I drink Champagne with dessert all the time. I would drink Champagne with anything! (Seriously, despite what I’m about to tell you, I personally would drink Champagne with any one of the desserts listed below.)

Your typical dessert wines are Port, Sherry, Madeira, Late-Harvest Riesling, Sweet Muscat, and Sauternes. Dessert wines can be a little pricey because of the extended aging they receive and the high costs of production. (And some Sauternes, like Château d’Yquem, are downright obscenely priced. No, I will not pay $400 for a 375-ml bottle, thank you very much.)

Some dessert wines, such as Late-Harvest Riesling, are sweet because the grapes are left on the vines longer to allow the sugars to concentrate. Some are sweet because the grapes are infected with a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” Don’t let the word “rot” (or “fungus,” for that matter) deter you. This fungus is considered a good thing.

With that as background, let’s do some pairings!

The Cheese Course

sauternesUnlike the French, I don’t consider cheese to be dessert. However, they insist that it is, and most fine dining establishments in the U.S. will offer a cheese course on the dessert menu. With sharp blue cheeses such as Roquefort or Stilton, I recommend a Sauternes (they’re not all as expensive as Château d’Yquem) or a tawny or vintage Port. With creamy cheeses such as Brie and Camembert, you want a fruit-forward Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. Pair aged Gouda with a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet/Merlot blend (i.e., Bordeaux).

Try this: Château Guiraud Sauternes.

Pastry and Custard

sherryWho doesn’t love pastry? Throw some custard in there, and you have yourself a silky, yummy treat. I love phyllo dough and things made from it, but I don’t have the patience to work with all those paper-thin layers. If I did, I would totally make this Custard Phyllo Pie with Almonds and Pistachios that I recently saw in Food & Wine. And if I made it, what would I drink with it? Champagne! But for you, my friends, I recommend a cream Sherry or a sweet Muscat. (And for the record, “phyllo” is pronounced “FEE-low.” It’s like Cee Lo Green, not like a filofax.)

Try this: Hidalgo Alameda Cream Sherry.


5913_Dows_Trademark copyAh, cheesecake. The reliable stand-by of every Italian restaurant in America. With or without the seemingly omnipresent raspberry sauce, you need something to cut through the tartness of the cream cheese. For that, I recommend Oloroso Sherry, Madeira, or Ruby Port. Note: you will almost never see the word “Ruby” appear on a bottle of Port. Port basically has three levels: ruby, tawny, and vintage. Ruby Port is the youngest (and least expensive) type of port. It is usually aged for just a couple of years, whereas Tawny Port is aged generally 10 years or more. Vintage Port is produced only when a particular year is “declared” to be an excellent year for the grapes (similar to vintage Champagne). You can read more here if you’re interested.

Try this: Dow’s Trademark Port.


Justin_2012_Cab_523953-150x490 copyChocolate is my default choice for dessert. I often consider branching out to something different, but inevitably end up with chocolate anyway. Perhaps it’s because chocolate doesn’t require a sweet dessert wine to bring out its best qualities. (Mind you, I’m talking about real chocolate: dark chocolate. Don’t even get me started on the travesty that is milk chocolate. It’s mostly sugar.) The bitterness in chocolate easily holds up to a super-earthy Pinot Noir or a big, bold California Cabernet Sauvignon. But if you want the sweetness, Tawny Port is also an excellent match for chocolate. Try it with these recipes for Chocolate-Bourbon Tart and Bacon-Bourbon Brownies with Pecans. (I would also pair these with Bourbon, but hey, this post is about wine pairings.) I’ll be making this Bittersweet Chocolate Crémeux for Valentine’s Day this year. And I’ll be drinking this Pommery Wintertime Blanc de Noirs with it (sorry, folks, but you can’t get it in the States), while my husband will most likely be drinking this Geyser Peak Henry’s Reserve Shiraz Port. And I’m sure we’ll both be pleased with our choice.

Try this: Justin Cabernet Sauvignon.

Poached Fruit

MichelleThen there’s always the option of putting the wine in the dessert. Pears poached in red wine are a classic, but here’s a recipe for Buttermilk Cake with Riesling-Poached Pears, which sounds amazing. Try that with a little Jeni’s Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, and you have yourself a pear jamboree. Cherries are another great poaching option, as this recipe shows. When serving a wine-poached fruit dessert, you can pair it with some of the wine you used in the recipe (if you used a decent wine, that is), or try something on the sweeter side of fruity, like a semi-dry Riesling or an Extra Dry sparkling Rosé. (Contrary to logic, a sparkling wine labeled “Extra Dry” is actually sweet.)

Try this: Michelle Extra Dry Sparkling.

Fresh Fruit

BonterraLastly, if you’re taking the healthy route and just having fresh fruit for dessert, well, you’re a stronger person than I am. I would try a semi-dry Riesling, or a Viognier, or Champagne, of course!

Try this: Bonterra Organically Grown Viognier.


Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone! If you have an excellent wine on deck for Saturday night, let us know in the comments.

*Heart photo originally uploaded to Flickr by user jacinta lluch valero.