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What to Drink with Dessert

Martha Stewart Living, February 2007

When a meal finishes on a sweet note, what you choose to drink should ideally keep step. Every sip that you take should complement and balance rich desserts and light ones alike. Giving the last course its own bottle or half bottle of wine can make even a simple plate of cookies, such as meringues, or bakery-bought brownies seem lavish.

Among the wines that match up well with dessert are myriad personalities, allowing you to choose one to suit the mood of the occasion and the flavors on the plate. Moscatos are light, jazzy, and almost as casual as a soft drink; smooth, nectarlike French Sauternes can spread warm sense of well-being; and a deep, butterscotch-scented fortified Spanish sherry can end a dinner on the perfect note of contemplation.

Almost without exception, wines best suited for dessert are those that retain much of the grape's natural sweetness. Winemakers may accomplish this by a variety of methods, the most common and compelling to let the grapes remain on the vine more time than usual (not so long that they become raisins, but longer than grapes harvested for drier wines). Nearly every wine region in the world produces a version of late-harvest wine, and most of these are made from white grapes. As moisture in the fruit evaporates, the juice concentrates, becoming sweeter, influenced by exposure the sun and, on occasion, by the beneficial botrytis cinerea fungus. The resulting flavors include some of brightest and most exuberant you'll find in wines, evoking fruits such peach, orange, and lychee, flowers such as jasmine, and honey.

Many late-harvest wines are labeled as such and enjoyed as they are, but other wines are fortified to attain their sweetness. To create a fortified wine, the winemaker adds small doses of liquor (typically grape brandy) during fermentation, thereby disabling the yeasts and preventing them from converting all of the sugars in the wine to alcohol. Spain's sherry and Portugal's Madeira and port are three popular examples. Fortified wines often are aged in wooden casks for several years and blended to bring out amber tones of dried fruit, caramel, and roasted nuts. The best of these also have a balancing wisp of tartness. Their intensity and slightly higher alcoholic strength (from 13 percent to 20 percent, as opposed to about 13 percent) make them ideal for pairing with rich and dense puddings, pastries, and cheeses. (Long before dessert, some fortified wines-drier sherries, for instance-might be served as superb partners for savories such as shellfish bisque.)

Unfortified late-harvest wines, such as one made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes left to ripen on the vine, with their fruitier and more floral profile, work beautifully with almost all types of treats, from a bowl of fresh berries to a piece of deep, dark chocolate.

Modest portions of sweet wines are sufficient; many are sold in half bottles. When serving, offer just a few tablespoons of fortified wine and a bit more than that of sweet, nonsparkling dessert wines. Both sorts should be slightly cooler than room temperature and served in very small, stemmed wine or cordial glasses (a set makes a fantastic house present packaged together with a fine half bottle). Bubblies, such as Moscato d'Asti, tend to be lower in alcohol and should be served in flutes or white-wine glasses.

The ravishing intensity of a dessert wine's flavor and perfume allows a little to go a long way. Opened sweet wines, when refrigerated, keep a few days longer than dry wines, so don't hesitate to open a second bottle if your choice proves popular with your guests.