Because most people are watching their weight or their alcohol consumption, dessert wines are a tough sell in liquor-licensed restaurants. And who brings dessert wine to a BYO restaurant?
However, the holidays are a time to indulge. So, why not have a desserts and dessert wines party at home as I did?
First, a few general rules about dessert wines. Because they are intense, a little goes a long way, which is why (along with the cost) most desert wines are in half (375 ml) bottles. Second, dessert wines should be as sweet as the desserts. That’s why wedding cake, which is mostly icing, and sparkling wine, which is invariably dry (ie. not sweet) is a marriage made in culinary hell.
For my dessert wine party, some friends and I tasted five desserts from local bakeries—pumpkin cheesecake from Bredenbeck’s; pecan pie from Cake; and flourless chocolate cake, key lime pie and carrot cake from the Night Kitchen. They were matched with five dessert wines:
- Domaine Durban Muscat Beaumes-De-Venise 2012 (Code: 49550, $14.99). Muscat (Moscato in Italian) is one of the most widely planted grapes on the planet, though it thrives in Mediterranean climates, like the village of Beaumes-De-Venise in the southern Rhone region of France. It has lovely floral notes. And though rich, it is wonderfully balanced. So it doesn’t feel heavy.
- Chateau Saint Vincent Sauternes 2010 (Code: 47853, $17.99). Named for the village
in the Bordeaux region of France, Sauternes is one of the most famous sweet wines in the world. Legendary for its ability to age for decades, Sauternes is primarily made of semillon with the rest sauvignon blanc and a smattering of muscadelle. The Saint Vincent is a good introductory Sauternes, which shows the characteristic exotic sweetness accented by vibrant acidity.
- Martini and Rossi Asti Spumante (Code: 5927, $14.99). Some people might think of this as low or middlebrow, but sparkling wine (which is what spumante means) is often terrific with dessert when it has the peachy sweetness that Asti (also made from the muscat grape) has.
- Royal Tokaji Mad Cuvee 2010 (Code: 46826, $21.99. Tokaji, not to be confused with Tokay, the cheap American jug wine, is made in Hungary from the furmint grape. I love its fall-like aromas and flavors and a brilliant amber color.
- M Chapoutier Banyuls 2012 (Code: 45226, $24.99). Another French wine named for a small town, Banyuls is just north of the Spanish border on the Mediterranean coast. While it can be red, white or rose, red Banyuls, made from the grenache grape, is the most celebrated. Exposed to seasonal variations in temperature, the wine becomes oxidized and develops a characteristic called rancio, which is reminiscent of nuts and dried fruits.
The Beaumes-De-Venise was the clear winner with the key lime pie. The match was so seamless, it was hard to know where the dessert left off and the wine began. The Sauternes was also a good match as was the Tokaji, which accented the tropical pie flavors with its fall flavors. The Asti was less sweet but the bubbles made up for it. The Banyuls and pie were like red wine and white fish.
Pecan pie was the least impressive dessert, in part because its crust was bland and lacked sufficient sweetness. The filling was also not as sweet as most pecan pies. For this reason, the Banyuls came through best, though it wasn’t anything I’d eagerly replicate.
However the Banyuls overpowered Bredenbeck’s fluffy pumpkin cheesecake, which seemed to go best with the Asti, though the Sauternes came through quite well.
Night Kitchen’s carrot cake was rich and sweet (as is often the case with this dessert). As a result, the two sweetest desserts, the Beaumes De Venise and Sauternes duked it out with the dessert like heavyweight boxers. I’d call the match a draw. No such fireworks with the Tokaji, though the wine had enough body to hold its own with the cake. The bubbles and acidity of the Asti helped to cut through the carrot cakes richness.
Asti’s characteristics held it in even better stead with the extremely intense chocolate cake, which was too much for the other wines except the Tokaji, which used its fall flavors and aromas to offset the cake.
Because this party has enough sweetness for a cavity convention, be sure to have plenty of water on hand. And maybe a little insulin.
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator Magazine columnist.