Vino Veritas: The Sweet Life – Sweet Wines to Pair with Your Favorite Summer Desserts

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What pairs well with dessert?
What pairs well with dessert?

Someone once told me that the way to tell whether you’re right or left-brained was to open your Internet browser and see how many windows were open. This morning there are five open: two are unfinished projects I swear I’ll get to the next time I have a day I can focus all my attention on them, the other three variations on baked goods. I have a problem.

My house is always littered in the pre, post, or product carnage of a good baking session and summer is one of my favorite times to bake because, simply, the fruit. The berries, the cherries, the peaches…it’s already started. I bought a cherry pitter. But what to drink with all the treats? I know I’ll have lots of fruit desserts on my table this summer, so put on your Wine Adventure Pants: we’re going to wander into territory so many claim to hate, so many refuse to experience, and so few look for answers. Let’s pair some sweet things.

Berries

We’ve already had some pretty stellar strawberries and raspberries this year, and the rest of the berry clan is showing up with bells on. My favorite berry dessert is a blueberry crisp my family calls Nana’s Blueberry Pudding, which is the best sweet crumbly topping baked over the freshest New Jersey blueberries of the season. It tastes like summertime at the shore.

Believe it or not, and I’ll say this often, sparkling wine is one of the best accompaniments to desserts, period. Much of the hesitation towards having a dessert wine after dinner is the overindulgent thought of a cloyingly sweet dessert topped off with a cloyingly sweet glass of syrupy wine. One way to conquer that is to pair your sweet dessert, say that blueberry crumble, with something light, palate cleansing, and refreshing like a glass of Champagne or, less expensively, Cava.

Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine, is made using the same method as Champagne, but has far fewer regulations regarding location and grapes allowed in production. There is a huge variety of Cava ranging in style, color price, and quality, but a good one generally can cost you under $20. The toasty, yeasty aromas coupled with bright, fresh acid and ripe fruit undertones make for a killer complement to a buttery, rich crisp with sweet-tart berries, and those “scrubbing bubbles” wash the palate clean with each sip.

Cherries

Cherries are my most anticipated fruit of the season…something about the snap of the taught skin against the tender, finger-staining flesh, spitting out the seeds ceremoniously in a bowl, and reaching for another is right up there with reading on the beach, as far as summer activities go. For desserts, I try to keep the fruit as whole as possible to retain the natural concentrated flavor cherries already have. For that, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned cherry pie.

Once again, you’d be perfectly pleased to pop another bottle of bubbly, this time maybe a bright, fresh Prosecco with some soft citrus and melon tones, but another option would be perfectly chilled Sauternes.

First a caveat: the last thing anybody wants to do is simplify Sauternes into a sidekick for cherry pie. It’s a “sweet” wine, yes, but it’s also a great wine, which means balance, substance, and a very careful production; there’s way more to sift through than just the sweetness. From a region in Bordeaux, Sauternes is some of the most sought after wine for collectors but is also one of the oldest wines ever to be built for age. But unlike many of its red counterparts, it’s drinkable at any age. The grapes are grown in a cool, damp climate, which means they start to grow a particular kind of fungus called “noble rot” or botrytis. It looks pretty gross: fuzzy, gray, wrinkles the grapes, but what happens is the water begins to evaporate and the sugars concentrate even more in the fruit. A very particular honey flavor accompanies grapes infected with noble rot, which is where that amazing flavor in Sauternes comes from. A little goes a long way, usually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle, layers of sweet honeyed peach and floral notes wrapped around arching acidity, sumptuous texture, rich but delicate all at once. It’s liquid gold.

With our cherry pie, we’ll assume there’s a fair amount of butter involved in your crust, which means that flaky, perfectly crisp and tender shell needs something to bounce off of; thus, Sauternes. With those two strong contenders playing ping-pong, the cherries themselves have space to be the vibrant, snappy showstoppers with the acid in the wine playing perfect second-fiddle to the fruit.

Peaches

Peach dessert, especially peach dessert baked with some kind of crispy crumbly baked accent, and especially paired with vanilla ice cream, is the pinnacle of summer. It’s the gastronomical equivalent to a backyard barbecue while slapping mosquitoes off your legs and chasing fireflies. So I’m not even going to specify a dessert, I’m just going to anticipate some pastry element with gooey perfectly ripe fruit baked in there somehow.

Oh, you know what would be great with this? Sparkling wine. In this case, you could echo the previous desserts and do a dry and fresh counter-balance to the sweet, or you could open up a bottle of Moscato, sweet, fizzy, low alcohol, and the easiest wine to like.

A lot of wine drinkers feel like they’ve graduated from that realm by the time they’re thinking of wine pairing, and perhaps your palate wants more than just sweet and easy these days, but never underestimate the power of a good Moscato. Some of the grape’s natural flavor profile includes peach or other pit fruit, which means your peach dessert just met its secret crush. The bubbles and acid (which a good Moscato should have), though less aggressive and plenteous than many other sparkling wines, still act as the balance to the rich sweetness of the fruit.

The coolest part about sweet wine paired with dessert is the actual interaction between the two treats: where the presence of sweet on sweet seems like it would be overpowering, the two actually end up almost cancelling each other out. The wine seems to have less residual sugar and the flavors in the dessert that aren’t sugar come to the forefront. It’s pretty amazing. Don’t believe me? Try it. Cherry season still has three good weeks left.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.



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