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The Right Wines to Serve With Dessert

Three tasty bottles can make everyone's favorite course and holiday gatherings even sweeter

By Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl | December 17, 2012
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Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a five-time James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer whose latest book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple.

Moscato dessert wine
Moscato d’Asti is a sweet and low-alcohol dessert wine
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From cookie exchanges to impromptu coffee cake visits with neighbors, the holiday season is a happy carousel of buttery, chocolaty, jam-topped delights. Yet, is there a way turn a dessert-centered gathering into a more cocktail party-like affair?

Irish coffee is the natural answer, but a lot of people avoid coffee at night and lots of others avoid whisky when they’re driving. Happily, European tradition has taken care of this dilemma; sweet wines go beautifully with sweet treats. That’s why they’re called dessert wines — they can be served as dessert, but they also go with dessert.

You’ll understand the logic as soon as you perform this experiment: Get a nice dessert wine. Help yourself to a bit of shortbread. Try the cookie, and let it work its buttery magic. Now take a sip of dessert wine. Taste how the acid, the wine's lemony quality, cuts through the butter and brings a depth of flavor from the wine, ushering in qualities of caramel and concentrated fruit. Suddenly, your next bite of cookie is entirely fresh, refocused, deeper.
 
Dessert wines are a great way to enhance holiday treats by making them downright adult and enchanting. Here are my three favorites:

(More: Best Holiday Drink Recipes)
 
Dow’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port All caramel and butterscotch, tawny ports are exquisite with creamy desserts like cheesecake or crème brulee and go perfectly with buttery, plain cookies, like shortbread, Mexican wedding cookies or even snickerdoodles. Dow’s 10-year-old tawny is my top choice for parties — a bottle costs around $28 and will serve two dozen glasses since you pour less port than ordinary table wine. This tawny is fragrant with hazelnuts, but well structured enough that the wine is never cloying.
 
Quady Essensia Made from orange muscat grapes, Essensia from California’s Quady winery is so orangey you’ll be tempted to think it has actual oranges in the bottle. Nope, that riotous, flowerful bouquet of orange, tangerine, peach and honeysuckle all comes from wine grapes.
 
This satiny, sleekly concentrated wine goes beautifully with chocolate desserts, from a flourless chocolate tart to a double-chocolate dark cocoa cookie. In my opinion it actually complements chocolate better than the standard choice of aged port. It is also gorgeous with desserts dominated by pie-spice flavors, like pumpkin pie bars or gingerbread cookies. A half-bottle costs about $15 and can be served in an ordinary wine glass or as a spritzer when paired with bubbly water and ice.
 
Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti Real Italian Moscato d’Asti is known for its perfume of peaches, orange blossoms, violets and a dozen other flower and fruit scents. The Elio Perrone is an elegant, bubbly example of this wine’s giggly joy. Low in alcohol and sweet, it's magical with any dessert that has fruit notes, like jam thumbprints, cranberry-studded seven-layer bars, old-fashioned lemon cookies, fresh fruit salad or fruit tarts.
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