Tag Archives: Wine pairing with Chocolate

What is a Dessert Wine?

This post was inspired by one of my avid readers (Thanks to Craig!).  My, off the cuff, answer to this question is a dessert wine is one which has enough sweetness to pair well with the final course of a meal, usually dessert, or be served as the dessert.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine also notes that in America this qualification is based on Alcohol content between 14-24 %.  Funny enough this would put a large number of dry red wines in to the dessert wine category as well.  However for the purposes of this post I’m going to stick with the stickies (wine geek term for sweet wines)!  I describe their personality as Sweet and Luscious.

For a little winemaking background, sweetness in a wine is known as Residual Sugar (or RS for short) and is usually quoted in grams per Liter (g/L) or % sugar.  The name for this sweetness is derived from the amount of sugar remaining after primary fermentation (the conversion of sugar by yeast to alcohol and CO2) has completed, hence the Residual part. However that is only one way that sugar can arrive in the finished wine.   Sugar can also be added in the form of grape juice, grape concentrate, or some other non-grape derived sweetening agents, depending on the laws of the country of production.

There are many famous types of dessert wines and I encourage anyone truly interested in wine to try them all to get an idea as to what is available.  Sweet wine does not automatically mean cheap wine or bad wine so throw the pre-conceptions out the door as we move in to the three main styles of dessert wines.

Fortified Sweet Wines

These wines are sweet because the primary fermentation was abruptly stopped by adding a high alcohol dose to the fermentation vessel.  Most yeast does not function well above 14.5% alcohol and this addition kills them instantly.  This leaves the remaining sugar in the fermentation as sweetness in the finished wine.  Port is likely the most well known of the Fortified Sweet Wines and with alcohols around 19% they are very distinctive.  True Port comes from the country of Portugal although there are many good producers of Port-style wines elsewhere in the world.  Other than dessert, Port and Port-style wines pair well with strong cheeses like Roquefort, figs and fig cakes, as well as almonds and Brazil nuts for Tawny styles of ports. Other fortified sweet wines include certain types of Sherries, Madeiras, Rutherglen Muscats, and Vin Doux Naturels.

Botrytized Wines


When grapes are attacked by a fungus called Botrytis (Pronounced Bo-try-tus) it can lead to one of two outcomes; a nasty rotten mess or beautiful sweet wines.  The fungus, when headed the more positive of the two ways, dehydrates the grapes while still on the vine leading to a concentration of sugars, acids, and flavors.  Botrytis also gives additional complexity to the wines through flavors such as orange marmalade, mushrooms, and honey.  My favorite Botrytized wines come from Sauternes, France where the three varieties; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle turn into liquid gold with intense aromatics and crisp finishes.  These wines pair well with strong flavored foods such as asparagus, fois gras, truffles, strong cheeses, and dried fruits. Other notable Botrytized wines are Tokaj from Hungary (the oldest of the Botrytized wines), and the Ausleses, Beerenausleses and Trokenbeerenausleses from Germany, the Rheingau region specifically.

Ice Wines


These types of wines are produced when the grapes freeze on the vine and are then harvested and pressed while still frozen leaving much of the natural water content at ice in the skins and creating a very pure fruit flavored, almost syrup-like wine, typically bottled in small 375mL bottles.  While Germany pioneered this style, which is called Eiswein, my favorites come from the Niagara region of Canada.  Typically produced from Riesling or Vidal Blanc, these wines are very enjoyable in small amounts and can be easily paired with cheese and dried fruits as well as desserts.  In rare years a Cabernet Franc Ice Wine can be produced and is also worth the search if you’re interested.  Austria also produces Ice Wines from both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, although the latter is harder to find. 


Dessert wines are a fun family of wines that are fairly easy to find and usually enjoyed by a wide variety of people even if they are not avid wine drinkers.  Also, there are some really great bargains to be found because dessert wines are not usually as sought after as their less sweet cousins.  However as with all high alcohol or intensely flavored foods or drinks, a little bit of dessert wine goes a long way so be sure and have a few friends to share in the discovery if you are going to open several bottles to compare.  It makes a fun wine tasting night to have some select foods and different sweet wines to discover your own favorite pairings.  To find dessert wines I’ve written tasting notes for, look for wines labeled Sweet and Luscious 

It’s a tough job but someone has to do it… :)

Every now and then there are days where I get frustrated at the world in general but those are fairly rare.  There are also days where I have to pinch myself that I get paid to make wine.  I had one of those days this week where the other winemakers and I were able to sit down, open a couple of bottles of wine, and pitch around tasting notes for marketing.  First I love writing tasting notes and it’s not often when you get a couple of people in the same room just discussing the wine for the sake of writing a single note.  It’s fun.  The power of suggestion definitely comes into play as distinctive descriptors are thrown around and mulled over by everyone else.  The wines are already in the bottle so we’re not trying to decide if we need to blend something in or make another addition.  It’s purely the winemakers trying to pull out the best ideas as to how to describe our wine now.  The four wines’ notes are listed below.

Souverain 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

Zesty and Fruity

A clear lemon core with moderately intense aromas of key lime, passion fruit, mango, and wet chalk introduces this wine.  A dry palate with moderately high acid, Med + alcohol, and a tiny bit of oak tannins for texture finishes with flavors of lime zest, guava, wet chalk, and passion fruit with a moderate and clean length. Pair with fresh salads, herb crusted salmon, or roast chicken with tarragon sauce.

Souverain 2008 Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River

Buttery Beauty

A medium-gold core and intense aromas of pineapple, honey, and caramel are accented by a wisp of smoke on the nose.  A dry, creamy palate filled with poached pears, cardamom, caramel, and honeycomb balances a toasted French oak backdrop. Drink now or hold for more development of honeyed notes on the palate. Enjoy with blue cheese, creamy sun-dried tomato sauce over pasta, or cinnamon poached pears.

Souverain 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Power Punch

A deep ruby core is highlighted by intense aromas of blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, chocolate, cedar, and baking spices.  The dry palate and moderate acid are perfectly balanced by velvet textured tannins.  Flavors of chocolate, cloves, black cherry, ginger, cigar box, and lavender tease the senses leading to a long luxurious finish.  This wine will shine for years either by itself or paired with juicy steaks or Black forest cake.

Souverain 2006 Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Power Punch

An amazing nose filled with black cherry, wild blackberries, cloves, and pomegranates highlighted by a deep ruby color is the introduction for this lovely wine.  Dry with dusty, fine grained tannins that mesh with baking spices, black fruits, and Tahitian vanilla for a long, lively finish is just the beginning of this wine’s life.  With the capacity to age over 15 years while developing richer notes of black mission fig and dates, this wine is a collector’s dream. When paired with the finest cuts of pepper crusted, aged beef this wine truly shines.

I love my job!!! 🙂

The “Pirate’s Code” of Wine and Food Pairings

One of the most common questions I am asked when speaking to consumers (other than “What’s your favorite wine?” which is #1) is what food would go with this wine.  The very basic “white wines with white meats and red wines with red meats” has served its purpose as a simple and easy way for the beginning wine consumer to learn about wine.  It is also generally (VERY generally) correct.  However at some point, people want to break outside the lines of the basic food pairing and experiment a bit.  So I’ve put together some thoughts on how I decide to pair wines and foods.  The following list is to be considered a “Pirate’s Code” of wine and food Pairing; more guidelines than actual rules.


The first thing I look at is the weight of the dish and try to pair that to the weight of the wine accordingly.  Salads and other “summer” foods tend to be very light so they pair well with light bodied wines. These are typically whites and light reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay.  Heavy foods like stews, cream sauces on pasta, and steaks need full bodied wines like Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Malbec.  Try to gauge the weight of your dish and find a selection of wines that are similar in weight.

Flavors, Aromas, and Intensity

Next I try and match the flavors and aromas in the dish to the predominant flavors and aromas of the wine.  If green herbs are being used then try a variety that leans toward the herbal side such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot or Cabernet.  If it is a fruity dish try Gewurztraminer or Muscat.  Keep in mind however that the intensity of the food and wine must also match.  If you have an herb crusted salmon dish and pair it with a Semillon, the Semillon will probably be overpowered by the intensity of herb flavors.  Smoked foods and strongly flavored cheeses need very powerfully flavored wines to match with them.

Acid Levels

Acid is tricky.  Acid in food is hard to pair wine with because the wine can be over powered by the acid and taste flabby.  Again balance is the key.  Try to match acid levels by using acidic wines to pair with acidic foods.  In foods with high citrus flavors such as lemons, limes, or grapefruits try Riesling, especially from cooler climates so that the acid will balance.  For Tomatoes or tomato sauces think Italian reds.  Vinaigrette is very tricky and if you must have wine to pair with it, choose a high acid variety in the same color as your vinegar that is being used.

Protein and Tannins

The more protein a dish has, the more tannin can be in the wine without it being harsh.  The astringency (or drying sensation) that people experience when drinking wine by itself is due to tannins in the wine binding with the protein in your mouth.  When you drink the same wine with protein (i.e. cheese or meat) the tannins bind to the protein you’re eating and not the protein in your mouth.  This makes the wine appear softer on the palate and can be a good way to enjoy that big red in your wine cabinet without having to wait for it to soften on its own.

Desserts and Sugar

Again balance is the key here with similar sugar levels in both the wine and the food. This is why sweeter wines are usually called “Dessert wines”.  They pair well with dessert.  If wines are served with an imbalance of sweetness, the wine can seem too sweet or sour if not sweet enough.  Although I follow this rule generally I do love a good full bodied red with chocolate cake regardless of sugar levels.

Artichokes and Asparagus

I had to put a quick note in about these two special veggies.  Artichokes make whatever you are eating with them taste sweeter so I typically choose a very dry, high acid white wine for these.  If they are grilled then make sure the wine has the intensity to hold up to the smoke.  Although a herbal Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious choice, Asparagus can be lovely with sweeter wines.  One of my favorite pairings is grilled Asparagus with a hollandaise sauce paired with Sauternes. Trust me, it’s awesome!

So I hope this helps ease the stress of the next dinner party.  Don’t forget to experiment on your own with wines and dishes that you like.