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What is a Dessert Wine, Anyway?

Chocolate Desserts, Dessert Wine, Dessert Wines, Sparkling Wines

Many of us have heard the term ‘dessert wine’ mentioned, and doesn’t it sound delicious, but we don’t really know what a dessert wine is or why we might want to serve one.

There are different distinctions in what is considered a dessert wine; one is a legal distinction made in the United States, regulated by the government, and one is a practical distinction, what a dessert wine tastes like and when one might want to serve a dessert wine.

To disperse with the U.S. legal distinction, dessert wines are wines with an alcohol content of fourteen percent or higher. Legally distinguished dessert wines are generally fortified wines, but can be of any variety because this is based solely on alcohol content.

Practically speaking, dessert wines are rich, sweet wines (like desserts), and can contain any percentage of alcohol. In fact, some of the best white dessert wines contain only half the alcohol as what the U.S. labels as dessert wine.

Dessert wines are generally satisfying with just a glass, maybe two. The satisfying sweetness of dessert wines “closes your palate” as Kevin Zraly, author of Windows On The World Complete Wine Course (2006, Sterling Publishing CO., N.Y.) describes the wine’s effect, so dessert wines are not usually consumed in large quantities. Additionally, a dessert wine may be very sweet and filling on its own, and although dessert wines are served to accompany dessert, they are also served as dessert. This can be especially appropriate after a heavy meal when there is really no room left for dessert.

Dessert wines might also be well used as a transition between the meal and dessert, clearing the palate of the flavors of the meal and preparing for sweeter things to come. (Another suggestion for serving dessert wines from Kevin Zraly).

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The sweetness of a dessert wine limits it as far as food pairing. Dessert wines are traditionally paired with dessert foods (if at all) because those are the dishes most similar to the wines, both in taste and texture.

Red dessert wines pair well with chocolate puddings, chocolates and nutty desserts. Port wines are traditional red dessert wine favorites; port wines are the best to serve with dark, semi-sweet chocolate desserts. Sweeter dessert, like milk chocolates and caramels are better served with something similar to a Madeira or Sherry.

White dessert wines are typically lower in alcohol content than red dessert wines. Some favorite white dessert wines are Muscat and Riesling. There are several sparkling wines that are sweet and pair very well with dessert dishes. Among these are Moscatos and Asti Spumante; Champagne pairs well with many foods as well as a variety of dessert dishes, and so is a good overall choice for difficult or questionable dessert pairings. Most white dessert wines are reminiscent of fruits and melons, and so pair well with fruit puddings, crème brulee, fruit pies or tarts and similarly flavored dessert dishes.

Serving temperatures for dessert wines are basically the same as guidelines for traditional red and white table wines. Red dessert wines are usually served at or just above room temperature (sixty to sixty-five degrees) and white dessert wines are best served chilled (to between forty-five and fifty-five degrees). The lower end of the white wine temperature spectrum applies to sparkling wines and champagne.

As with all wines, a dessert wine pairing guide is only a recommendation. Consumers are urged to try a variety of wines and choose those that taste best to their own individual palate. For most people, these guidelines hold true and are a good reference for serving in a group, but if a certain wine-dessert pairing bucks tradition and tastes good, the best advice is for people to drink what they like.

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