Pairing food with sweet wines
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Sweet wines always appear at the end of the wine list and for many of us it is a bridge too far. We have bought a bottle to go with our meal, but we sure as hell aren't dropping another £10 on a glass of something sweet and sickly for dessert. Sweet wines are for old people right? Old fashioned? Expensive? These are all preconceptions of a category that offers more bang for your buck - supercharged flavours, amazing complexity, utter deliciousness - than any other area of the wine list.
Jesus may have turned water into wine, but it is doubtful even he could make the same wine work with every dish on the menu and if he paired the cheeky Galilean red (that went so well with the duck and mulberries) with the wedding Mamool cake there would have been some pretty pissed off disciples at Cana. If you are eating out in a good restaurant ordering by the glass is the best way to satisfy everyone at the table and drinking sweet wine with dessert and selected cheeses is the only way to get a truly happy ending.
When you pair wine with food the level of sweetness should be balanced. So dry wines don't work with sweet foods and vice versa. And you need to pair a very sweet dessert with a very sweet wine or a moderately sweet dessert with a moderately sweet wine - common sense right? Rosé Champagne(dry) with strawberries (sweet) is one of the biggest misconception as the strawberries are too sweet and clash with the dry Champagne. And you are simply wasting money by spoiling the taste of the wine with the wrong food.
Also the flavour intensity of the food and wine need to be similar - dark chocolate cake and Banyuls (fortified red wine) is perfection because both elements are strongly flavoured and one doesn’t cancel out the other. An airy meringue with a light and frothy Moscato d’Asti is pitch perfect.
Lastly let’s think about blue cheese. Mmmm. If you don’t like blue cheese then you probably haven’t had the right wine to go with it. On its own blue cheese is intensely salty and acrid with intense blue mold - it is pretty minging (to use the technical term). But when you put the same cheese with a powerful intensely sweet wine like Sauternes or Port it is transformed into one of the most delicious substances on earth - and because of the acidity and power of the wine there is no unpleasant moldy aftertaste (however don’t kid yourself this isn’t the time to go in for a kiss).
There are various types of sweet wines made by different methods including stopping, over-ripening (late harvest), rotting (botrytis/noble rot), drying (passito/straw wine), freezing (ice wine) and dosing with strong alcohol (fortified wine). Each method gives a different style with varying levels of sweetness, body and intensity that suit different dishes:
Stopped Wines are light in alcohol and body and are very sweet. Sparkling Moscato d’Asti is a very versatile and affordable pudding wine that pairs well with fruit desserts, mousses, meringue, creamy desserts such as panna cotta and ice cream. Moscato d’Asti also works extremely well with white and milk chocolate desserts.
Late Harvest Wines have a moderate level of sweetness and fairly light weight, so suit desserts that are moderately sweet like fruit tarts, fruit salad, strawberries and cream and mild blue cheeses like Blue Brie or Cambozola.
Botrytis Wines are very sweet and concentrated. They pair well with caramelised fruit desserts like tarte tatin or flambeed pineapple. They are produced from a special mold (noble rot/botrytis) and work amazingly with strong blue cheeses like Roquefort. Also excellent with liver pâté.
Passito/Straw Wines are rich and intensely sweet. They are best served with the sweetest dishes including desserts containing milk chocolate, caramel or honey. They can also work well with sweet blue cheese such as Dolcelatte.
Ice Wines are extremely sweet yet delicate with razorlike acidity. Given the very high price tag these wines are often served without food in order to fully appreciate the subtlety. However they could work with fruit sorbets and mild blue cheeses.
Sweet Fortified Red Wines like Port or Banyuls are very sweet, full-bodied and intense. They work very well with dark chocolate desserts and strong blue cheese like Stilton. Sweet
Fortified White Wines like Madeira, Sherry and Marsala are powerful, rich and sweet. These wines often have a nutty, raisined edge, so work extremely well with any dishes containing dried fruits or nuts like mince pies. For instant dessert just pour Pedro Ximenez (PX) Sherry (the sweetest wine in the world) over vanilla ice cream.