Why aren't dessert wines more popular? Howard Silverman, owner of Howard's Wine Cellar, has a theory: "Sophisticated consumers of dry wines usually cut their teeth on sweeter ones like white zinfandel," he says. "So now they reject all dessert wines claiming they don't like sweet wines anymore."
But not everybody in the industry blames the buyer. "Very few winemakers specialize in dessert wines," says Fernando Beteta, master sommelier at NoMi. "Most create their signature wines first and only then turn to sweet wines, which are very difficult and expensive to produce." The costs get passed on, and "it takes a connoisseur to spend $50 or more for a half bottle." Superstars like the Sauternes Chateau d'Yquem have always ranked among the world's rarest, most complex, most elegant wines, but they're beyond almost everybody's price range, with aged bottles going for thousands of dollars.
Savvy food pairings could help people appreciate dessert wines, but that raises another problem: The general rule is that the dessert wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the dessert so that the wine isn't overpowered. Yet how's the average diner to know how sweet a wine is when even those with the same name, for example Beerenauslese, can vary widely depending on the sugar-acid balance, grape variety, year, and a host of other factors? Some winemakers offer clues—Austrian Alois Kracher, who makes only dessert wines, numbers each vintage of his varietals on a sweetness scale of 1 to 12. But generally the best bet is to ask an expert, which is what we did here, soliciting suggestions for pairings including treats for Valentine's Day.
Master sommelier, NoMi
German or Canadian ice wine has a pure, crisp, clean sweetness that's good with light desserts such as sorbets, as well as with our Caribbean combination of passion-fruit cream, coconut rice pudding, and coconut strudel.
Tawny port, Vin Santo, Madeira, and Banyuls, a fortified red wine from the south of France, work with desserts that have chocolate, caramel, and nuts.
For Valentine's Day: Orvietto Classico Tenuta Salviano Vendemmia Tardiva from Umbria with Le Duo, a raspberry-dark chocolate heart and a passion fruit-white chocolate heart. The late-harvest white wine has a delicate nose and flavors of toasted almonds, caramel, and dried figs that won't overpower the raspberries and white chocolate.
Owner, Howard's Wine Cellar
Moscato d'Asti from Italy, a fizzy, low-alcohol wine made from sweet muscat grapes, is a good all-purpose dessert wine that's not too costly ($12-$17 retail) and is often available by the glass in restaurants. Crisp and not at all cloying, it goes well with fruit desserts, biscotti, and even cheesecake. The fresher the better, so look for 2008 or 2009.
Sauternes, with its great acidity and intense tropical fruit flavors, pairs beautifully with the salty tanginess of an exquisite Roquefort, but it's also a good match for classic apple tarte tatin.
Alvear Pedro Ximenez Motilla, a relatively inexpensive sherry (about $20 a half bottle), is best with pastries or poured on vanilla ice cream. Or drink it by itself.
For Valentine's Day: chocolate-dipped strawberries paired with Moscato d'Asti, a cabernet sauvignon if the chocolate is dark, or a Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese if you're wealthy.
General manager of Lush Wine and Spirits
Kracher Trockenbeerenauslese Chardonnay No. 9 2004 ($92), an earthy and honeyed yet brightly acidic "noble rot" wine (made with grapes infected by botrytis cinerea, a parasitic fungus) complements either a hard aged cheese with caramelly overtones or a pear dessert.
Vignalta Alpinae 2006 from Italy ($27) is a late-harvest wine made from orange muscat grapes with flavors of mandarin orange, curry, and sweet almond balanced by piercing acidity, making it perfect with zabaglione made with sweet marsala and served with berries.
D'Oliviera Madeira 1977 ($160), made from bual grapes, is a nutty fortified wine with finishing notes of leather spice and orange rind that play off any dessert with toffee and candied walnuts.
For Valentine's Day: Tobin James Liquid Love 2005 ($21), an intense, spicy late-harvest California zinfandel that's almost like a port but fresher, is ideal with dark chocolate— especially spiked with hot red pepper.
Sommelier, Charlie Trotter's
For Valentine's Day, Trotter's has come up with half a dozen desserts, each paired with two dessert wines, most of which are also available at Trotter's to Go (1337 W. Fullerton, 773-868-6510). Here are a just a few of the pairings; the prices are what you'll pay at the shop, not at the table.
Lynfred Late Harvest Petite Syrah 2004 ($25.75) with a heart-shaped molten chocolate cake with cognac cherries. The wine's red fruit tone mirrors the cherries, and the bouquet of red roses and violets suits the holiday.
Kracher TBA No. 12-Zwischen den Seen Scheurebe, Burgenland 1998 ($105 for 375 ml), one of Trotter's many Kracher wines, is a multilayered Trockenbeerenauslese that marries well with a flourless chocolate cake with caramelized cocoa nibs, adding a nutty toffee background.
Tokaji-Aszu 5 Puttonyos Oremus 2000 ($63), a honeyed Hungarian "noble rot" wine, sets off the fruit in red velvet cake with candied tangerine peel and cream cheese frosting.
Or if you want to really splurge at the restaurant, a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem Premier Cru Superior 1857, the oldest of the vintages of this great Sauternes on Trotter's list, is $12,000.