From nutty, caramelized pecan pie to spiced gingerbread cookies, the holiday season is chock-full of decadent desserts. When you find the perfect dessert wine pairing for each of these classic treats, you make the experience feel even more indulgent for your guests. A honey-like German Riesling can bring out the nutmeg and cinnamon notes in a slice of pumpkin pie, while a rich ruby Pinot Noir can add a complex layer of fruitiness to a cup of chocolate mousse. Fine wine has the power to elevate even the simplest desserts, making them taste as though they were made from scratch in a French patisserie.
Yet finding the perfect dessert wine pairing can be a challenge, especially if, like most people, you plan on serving more than one dessert this season. In order to take your favorite holiday treats from ordinary to extraordinary, you’ll want to look for very sweet wine styles that still have layers of complex flavors. By investing in the right bottles and finding wines that complement the flavors of each dessert, you’ll end all of your holiday parties on a high note this year.
Serve True Dessert Wines with Dessert
One common mistake that wine enthusiasts make when they pair wine with dessert is that they often focus too strongly on the quality of the wine itself, rather than considering how that wine interacts with the dish. I once went to a Christmas party hosted by a Bordeaux collector who served an aged bottle of bold Pomerol Merlot with a delicate, handmade apple tart. The Merlot completely overpowered the dessert, but the host insisted on serving it anyway because he wanted his guests to try the rare wine.
Although this wine would have tasted incredible on its own, it came across as too acidic and tannic when paired with dessert. After your taste buds are exposed to sweet foods, like pie or cheesecake, they become temporarily accustomed to the elevated sugar levels. If you take a sip of dry wine shortly after taking a bite of sweet dessert, you’ll usually find it to be too acidic compared to the food. This is true whether you’re serving a $20 bottle of table wine or a $4,000 bottle of Petrus.
There’s nothing wrong with showing off your most treasured bottles of wine at a holiday party. After all, it gives you the opportunity to celebrate a special occasion by sharing your wine with your friends and family. But if you want your guests to have an enjoyable dining experience, stick with true dessert wines at the end of the night. A true dessert wine is either very sweet or fortified, meaning that distilled spirits, like brandy, have been added to the wine. These are the types of wine that you may find too cloying on their own but that match beautifully with desserts. You’ll find these qualities most often in Port or in wines that have been exposed to noble rot, like Sauternes. However, some unexpected varieties, like Pinot Noir, Riesling, and even some bottles of Merlot can lean toward the sweeter side of the spectrum as well.
Getting Creative with Dessert Wine Pairings
When you’re shopping for the right dessert wine, you don’t have to limit yourself to vintage Fonseca or Yquem (although these are foolproof selections). You can also choose varieties like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. As long as you ensure that each of the wines you pick falls on the sweeter side of the spectrum and matches the flavors and colors of your desserts, you’ll end up with a delicious and creative dessert wine pairing. First, look at the residual sugar of the wine you want to serve; this isn’t always the easiest information to find. You may see the residual sugar printed on the bottle, but most of the time, you’ll have to search on the winery’s website or look through professional critic reviews to find this information.
If the residual sugar is between 50 and 150 g/L, then your wine is likely sweet enough to be served with dessert. Fruit-based desserts that are less sugary will pair best with wines that have between 50 and 100 g/L of residual sugar, whereas more decadent, rich desserts (like chocolate pots de crème) will pair best with wines that have between 100 and 150 g/L of residual sugar. This is true regardless of what wine style you want to serve.
Once you’ve considered sugar levels, you should also think about how the color and flavor of the wine complement or contrast with your dessert in order to make your final decision. You can start by eliminating any wines that are significantly lighter or darker than the dessert that you want to serve. If you’ve made a dark chocolate cake, then you can eliminate Riesling or Sauternes as an option; if you’re serving peach cobbler, eliminate any dark reds, like Merlot or Port. Next, consider the flavors of the remaining wines on your list. Do any of the flavors in the wine’s tasting notes match the flavors of your desserts? You may find flavors like cherry, which would pair well with cherry pie, or you may find coffee notes, which would complement dark chocolate desserts that have a hint of bitterness.
The Best Dessert Wine Pairing for Holiday Classics
The basic guidelines above should make it easy to devise your own dessert wine pairing. If you’d like some inspiration, though, we’ve created a list of delicious wines to pair with classic holiday desserts.
Pecan pie — The very sweet, bold flavors of pecan pie will overpower nearly any wine except an aged Port or Madeira.
Pumpkin pie — The somewhat savory spices in this pie pair well with complex white wines that aren’t too sweet.
Gingerbread — Choose a sweet wine that has some elements of spice to bring out the spices in the dessert.
Chocolate cake — Pair chocolate cake with a rich red wine such as Port or some sweeter styles of Syrah.
Chocolate mousse — This dessert is lighter than chocolate cake and is best paired with light reds or bold whites.
Crème brûlée — Pair any custard-based dessert with a sweet white wine.
Fresh fruit or fruit pies — Match your fruit-based desserts to the fruit notes in the wine. Stone fruits like peaches pair best with white wines, while dark fruits (like cherry, plum, or blackberry) pair better with red wines.
At the end of the day, the perfect dessert wine pairing will depend on which matters most to you: the wine or the food. If the wine is the highlight of your Christmas dinner or other holiday meal, then you should choose desserts that pair well with the kinds of wines that you already plan on serving. If the food itself is most important, then you may have to save some of your best bottles for a different party. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that your dessert wine pairing has to be boring or formulaic–when you get creative with the wines you serve, you take dessert to a whole new level and offer your guests a combination they’ve never tried before.