The Best Dessert Wines & Pairings
There’s an old saying about wine drinkers in this country: We talk dry but drink sweet—meaning that we secretly prefer wines with a little sugar left in them after the fermentation has been stopped. Brushing aside the snarky judgment buried in that, my contention is that we actually don’t drink sweet enough. Yes, we love our red blends that are soft and sippable because they have a smidgen of sugar. But we shun truly sweet wines—which leaves us missing out on the West’s exquisite dessert wines.
I’m not talking about sweet fortified wines here (port, sherry, and the like), although those are also worthy of their share of today’s highly allocated carbs. I’m talking about late-harvest whites whose berries, in the Old World tradition, have been left on the vine until their sugar levels are high and their fruit flavors have morphed into the realm of dried stone fruit and tropicals.
Merry Edwards, legendary Sonoma winemaker who crafts a beautiful sweet Sauvignon Blanc, explains her inspiration: “I have always been enamored with the great late-harvest wines of the world—the best Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese.” The former is the famed sweet white of Bordeaux, the latter (“TBA” for short) the sweetest of the German whites, both made from grapes that have been infected with the ominous-sounding fungus Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” In the process of drying and shriveling the grapes, botrytis leaves behind rich honeyed flavors and a haunting minerality—qualities key to the reputations of both wines.
Noble rot is a player in many of the best late-harvest whites in the West, although by no means all. (There’s no botrytis-on-demand; it’s a spontaneous phenomenon, and unwelcome in the wrong grapes at the wrong time.) And here, beyond the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle of Sauternes, and the Riesling of most TBAs, winemakers are letting other varieties hang—from Chardonnay to Viognier—to the good fortune of our holiday tables.
Far Niente 2011 “Dolce” (Napa Valley; $85, 375 ml.) Gloriously spicy, with caramelized dried papaya and pear laced with orange zest.
Frank Family Lewis Vineyards Late Harvest Chardonnay (Carneros, Napa -Valley; $100, 375 ml.) Honeyed pear and apricot nectar give way to exotic tropical fruit and spice.
Grgich Hills 2013 Late Harvest “Violetta” (Napa Valley; $85, 375 ml.) A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer, sandwiching rich but bright orange and dried stone-fruit flavors between earthy minerality and high-toned floral notes.
La Crema 2013 Saralee’s Vineyard “Sweet As” Gewürztraminer (Russian River -Valley; $35, 375 ml.) A riot of jasmine and lavender wraps around juicy apple, Asian pear, and Meyer lemon.
Merry Edwards 2014 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River -Valley; $48, 375 ml.) Delicate honeysuckle, almond blossom, and kiwi notes lead to candied clementines and caramelized ginger.
Robert Mondavi 2015 “Moscato d’Oro” (Napa Valley; $25, 375 ml.) A hedonistic and exotically floral mélange of citrus, peach, and dried mango.
Stony Hill 2015 “Semillon de Soleil” (Napa Valley; $30, 375 ml.) Refreshing salinity balances mouth–filling apple, pear, mandarin, and sweet spice.
Whitehall Lane 2013 “Belmuscato” (Napa Valley; $24, 375 ml.) Honeysuckle, peach, and tart citrus zest are balanced by savory crushed herbs and warm spices.
While it’s tempting to sip these honeyed beauties as dessert on their own, that would be missing the point. Their nutty, floral, spicy character is a foil to some of winter’s best desserts. In our Test Kitchen tastings, they particularly shone with fruit, nut, and spice-driven sweets. High marks for any ginger, caramel, and cream involved. Try these desserts for matches made in heaven:
- Butternut Squash Spice Cake (pictured above)
- Orange Ribbon Cheesecake
- Maple Pecan Cake
- Caramelized Pears with Toasted Hazelnuts (no need for the included chocolate sorbet)
- Cholly’s World Famous Gingerbread Cake
- Apricot Nut Tart
- Spiced Apple Carrot Cake with Goat Cheese Frosting
- Banana Pecan Dacquoise
- Eggnog Cheesecake
- Orange Trifle with Grand Marnier Cream
- Gingerbread Pear Trifle
- Tarte Tatin
- Hazelnut Shortbread Bars
- Sauvignon Blanc–Poached Pears with Spicy Pepitas
- Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
- Three-Spice Apple Pie
But if you truly reach your sweet limit, go with after-dinner cheese—blue, brie, or something nutty like a P’tit Basque. The wine is like a drizzle of honey on top.