The holiday season affords many opportunities for drinking — from seasonal cocktails and mulled cider to spiked cocoa and, of course, wine. With so many sweets-focused events, like cookie swaps and apps-and-dessert cocktail parties, it’s equally as important to pair wines correctly with dessert as it is with your Christmas ham.
First off: The rule of thumb when you’re pairing wine with sweets is that the wine should be sweeter than the food. (Ever been to a wedding where the Champagne was perfectly delicious until the cake was served? Now you know why.)
So that begs the questions: How sweet are we talking? Which wines are appropriate for your dessert soiree?
For milder desserts (like petits fours, cookies or anything with a lemon glaze), go with just-this-side-of-sweet white wines like Riesling and Gewurztraminer. (Dry and off-dry bottlings of Riesling and Gewurz will say Kabinett or QbA on the label).
Once you move into sweeter dessert territory (crème brulee, bread pudding, salted caramel anything) you’ll need to look for the words “late harvest” on the label (if it’s a German wine it might say spätlese or auslese; in French it might say vendange tardive), which means the wine is made with super-ripe (and thus sweeter) grapes.
Fruit desserts (pies, tarts, crumbles, pavlovas) do really well with anything that has a hint of honey in it. When a wine tastes like honey, that’s often indicative of botrytis (a special kind of mold that makes delicious wine). If it’s from America or Australia, the label might say botrytis or “noble rot”; or, look for Sauternes (from France), Trockenbeerenauslese (also called TBA, from Germany and Austria) or Tokaji Aszú (from Hungary).
And if there’s chocolate on the menu, go red: Almost-bitter dark chocolate can hold its own with ripe, fruity Merlots and Cabernets; if it’s any sweeter than that, think about Port, or late-harvest Shiraz or Zinfandel.
And if you’re not serving dessert at all, dessert wine (Port, Sauternes, Tokaji, ice wine, or TBA) is dessert in a glass, and a fantastic pair for after-dinner cheeses. Port’s a natural with blue cheese; the honeyed wines are great with anything washed-rind and funky; and ice wine does really well with semi-hard and aged cheeses.
Looking for a great wine to get started? Meet entwine, Food Network’s line of wines that are perfect on their own or paired with food.