Drinks

As the World Sauternes

Our favorite sweet dessert wines are perfect for pairing
Sauternes and a pear tart
Glasses of Sauternes served with a pear tart | Photos: Lizzie Munro

"Sweet wines have gotten a reputation for not being very good," says Alan Murray, wine director of San Francisco's Mourad, who also happens to be a Master Sommelier and instructor at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California. "But great dessert wines really are great wines," he adds.

"But I like my wines dry!" you protest.

We get it. But we're not talking blue-bottle Riesling or white Zin over here, or about the big-batch, fruity stuff you find in the double bottles. We're talking about dessert wine–real dessert wine–which is crafted just as carefully, if not more so, than its bone-dry cousins. Rich, complex and intensely aromatic, these wines are great for sipping on their own, but they're even better when you have them with food.

It's worth noting that making a great dessert wine is a painstaking process. Its flavor comes not from added sweeteners, but rather from its own natural sugars, which are heavily concentrated a couple of ways: by harvesting late in the season, drying the grapes on mats or even allowing them to freeze on the vine. Among the sweetest are Hungary's famous honey-like Tokajis, like the 2007 Disznók? Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos ($33 for 500ml), which often take years to ferment.

A selection of dessert wines

But despite their complexity, dessert wines are easy to appreciate. "As an educator, I find that people instantly recognize the length and persistence on the palate," Murray says.

There are a few rules to remember. The first is that the best dessert wine pairings happen when your wine is sweeter than what's on your plate–it keeps the wine from tasting bitter and will help the flavors to balance out. After that, it's really just what you're in the mood for.

For beginners, Murray recommends Muscat, he adds, with its telltale flavors of orange peel, roses and honey. He likes the 2012 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($14 for 375ml) with an equally unfussy dessert, a bowl of ice cream.

If a savory pairing is more your speed, there's plenty to explore by way of foie gras and Sauternes, a classic match that can come at a surprising bargain: A half bottle from Château Rieussec can be had for less than $20. You can keep things sweet, if you'd like, too: Try pairing that bottle with a simple custard or an apple tarte tatin.

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You may be thinking, What should I drink right now, considering how cold it is? An evening fireside calls for a nutty, amber-hued Vin Santo from Tuscany's Badia a Coltibuono ($34 for 375ml). Stick with a regional pairing and sip it alongside crisp biscotti or a crostata di frutta. And if chocolate's what you're after (ahem, Valentine's Day), lighten things up with a Brachetto d'Acqui, a sweet, red sparkler from Piedmont. And save a fizzy, delicate and intensely floral Moscato d'Asti for the warmer days ahead.

Don't be afraid to seek out dessert wines on your next trip to the shop. Those little bottles should command your full attention.

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