Before you call for coffee to go with dessert, consider a dessert wine instead. Erik Segelbaum, sommelier at Le Diplomate, understands why people hesitate over dessert wines.
“The common misconceptions are that one must spend a lot of money on dessert wines and that they are all very sweet,” he says. “Dessert wines are a perfect way to end a meal and complement your final course. The dessert course should not be an afterthought but rather part of the whole dining experience.”
Dessert wines can seem intimidating because they are a class unto themselves, ranging from port, madeira and Riesling to sherry, ice wine and muscat. They should also, according to Segelbaum, be sweeter than the dessert itself, because he says, “If this is not the case, the sweeter dessert will overshadow the sweetness of the dessert wine, ostensibly canceling it out. The wine will taste sour and bitter.” This is where the sommelier, or your favorite wine merchant, comes in handy: these are people who are specifically trained to know how to pair dessert wines with a wide variety of desserts, opening up a whole new world of flavors that enhance every morsel of chocolate or macadamia nut.
At Le Diplomate, the new executive pastry chef, French-born Fabrice Bendano, brings a wealth of complex flavors to each dessert that really do cry out for an appropriate accompaniment. A Tarte Fine Chocolate-Caramel with a streusel-laden hazelnut ice cream, dark and rich with a salty undercurrent, finds its match with Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos, a barrel-aged vintage port with a deep blackberry finish that heightens the underlying floral essence inherent in good chocolate. A classic Apple Tarte Tatin benefits from a Canadian ice wine made from frozen Vidal grapes, its strong raisin flavor providing a perfect complement to warm apples.
For a sommelier like Segelbaum, a Canadian who grew up near the one of the world’s best ice wine-producing regions on the Niagara Peninsula, there is no one-size-fits all dessert wine for every dessert, so he must consider many different elements when selecting a pairing. For instance, not all chocolate is created the same.
“Chocolate can be so dramatically different,” he says. “Milk or dark? Bitter or sweet? What is with it? What is in it?” There are also, he says, no hard-and-fast rules that can be used to create a “Dessert Pairings 101” for the uninitiated, so he believes that diners should trust the experts who are there to provide guidance. “Flavor profiles can vary dramatically from one wine to the next,” he says, “especially in the new world where there are few regulations regarding dessert wines.” Trusting an expert will likely save money in the end.
If you do want to feel like you’ve got a bit of a leg up the next time you are looking at a dessert wine menu, Segelbaum has a little advice to get you started:
• For a berry-based dessert, Segelbaum says, “I really love Tokaji Aszu from Hungary with red berries, especially strawberries.” Other options include Malaga, Pedro Ximenez (PX), sherries and red ice wines.
• A chocolate dessert goes well with Ruby Port or Port style wines, which come from the Douro valley of Portugal. Ruby port is aged in the bottle, while Tawny port is a blend aged oxidatively in barrels. Look for exceptional Port-style wines from France, Washington State and California.
• For citrus desserts, Segelbaum reaches for a muscat wine, saying, “There are many kinds, but all seem to work.” Varieties include fortified, sparkling and late harvest. He also suggests late harvest or fully sweet Gewürztraminers, particularly orange.
• Vanilla desserts cry out for sweet Rieslings — in fact, Segelbaum says a classic crème brulée paired with a Riesling ice wine is “pure heaven.” Also look for late harvest Rieslings from Germany and Austria: Beerenauslesse (berry selected harvest) and Trockenbeerenauslesse (dry berry selected harvest).
• Finally, for a nut-based dessert (pecan pie deserves a wine, too), Madeira, which also pairs well with a cheese course, is the way to go. Another option is a tawny port, especially those aged 20 or 30 years.
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible D.C. and writes about food and cocktails for a wide variety of national and regional publications. Follow her kitchen adventures on Twitter, @khartke.