As an avid pastry baker and consumer, I’ve thought a lot about how to pair wine with various desserts, and what wines are universally – or almost universally – good choices with sweets. There are a few that come to mind, but dessert is a difficult category to pair with wine because there are so many types of sweets, and what you’re looking for may be different. Wine pairing generally comes down to either complementing or contrasting with a dish, and this remains true when pairing with the last course of a meal. And then there are sweet wines in and of themselves, some of which pair nicely, and some of which ARE dessert on their own – treat them as such!
The number one, almost-no-fail dessert pairing choice is a crisp, dry or semi-dry (demi-sec) Champagne. The bubbles cleanse the palate both between courses and between bites, and the acidity creates a nice complement with a bright, fresh dessert like a lemon bar, say, and contrasts nicely with something rich and custardy like creme brulee. If your final course has fruit or cream in it, you’re definitely safe with Champagne alongside. However, if you’ve selected a chocolate confection, Champagne may either be too stark a contrast, or simply lost in the intensity of your sweet, so think of something else.
The classic choice for anything chocolate is to go with Port, which is generally a late-harvest, fortified red wine. It’s higher in alcohol (from the fortification, usually with brandy or grappa), and has some sweetness leftover from the fermentation process too, so it’s intense in several senses. The sweetness and intensity work together, and the toffee and toast in a Port wine will play nicely with the other flavors that often come in a chocolate pastry – nuts especially. Now, neither Tala nor I are huge fans of the Port-with-chocolate pairing. It can be overwhelmingly sweet and, well, saccharine. Another option with chocolate is a fizzy red like Brachetto, Lambrusco or sparkling Shiraz. The same principles from the Champagne-with-fruit-or-cream pairing apply, but with the structure and intensity that can only come from a red wine. Just keep the tenor of the wine in line with whatever you’re pair – more intense wine like Shiraz with a dark chocolate cake, and a lighter, brighter one like Brachetto with something maybe in the milk chocolate raspberry vein.
Sweet wines like Sauternes, late harvest Rieslings, and Tokajis are very complementary to dishes that have some depth but also some sophistication – think Tarte Tatin, peach crostata or brown butter shortbread. Anything with butter or caramel will shine here, and pastry goes great too – which is how you know this is my favorite category. The nutty and subtle complexity of anything with a crust – pastry or just oven crispness really bring something out in these selections. The apple-y flavor of an aged late harvest Riesling will seamlessly integrate with a caramel-based sweet. These wines tend to be well aged, rare, and quite expensive, which means you should also consider serving them on their own. Let the wine be the finish to a great meal, and a great topic of conversation over the glasses you share.