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Dessert wines tend to be rich, sweet, and higher in alcohol than conventional wines, and are traditionally served in small, dainty glasses. As the name suggests, dessert wines are usually served with dessert, and there are a number of varieties which have different levels of sweetness, flavor, and texture in the mouth. When selecting dessert wines for pairing, the dessert being served should be taken into account, along with the wine, as the two flavors will interact, sometimes negatively.
The family of sweet and fortified wines which are considered to be dessert wines includes Sauternes, late harvest Riesling, Madeira, Port, Sherry, Spumante, ice wines, and other sparkling, dry wines like some champagnes. As a general rule, the wine selected should be somewhat sweeter than the dessert, as the sweetness will balance out when consumed with the dessert. If the dessert is sweeter than the wine, it has a tendency to make the wine taste bitter and sour: if you are unsure about pairings, ask the staff of a wine store for recommendations or buy several dessert wines to taste with the dessert before serving it.
In some cases, the wine is so intensely rich and sweet that it should actually be served alone. Ice wines are an example of this type of dessert wine. Ice wine is made from grapes which froze on the vines, concentrating a sweet rich flavor in the fruit which transfers to the wine when the grapes are pressed. Ice wine is also very crisp and slightly acidic in flavor, because it is not affected with noble rot, like Sauternes, another intensely sweet dessert wine. The clean finish of ice wine is often an excellent way to end a rich meal.
Port, Madeira, and Sherry all pair well with cheese courses, and are excellent dessert wines to serve with a cheese platter. Port is traditionally paired with Stilton cheese, although other cheeses can, of course, be experimented with. These dessert wines also pair well with some chocolate desserts, although because chocolate varies in sweetness and intensity, tasting a proposed pairing before offering it is an excellent idea.
Sparkling wines such as dry champagne and Spumante are excellent alone, or served with fruit courses. Rich bittersweet chocolate tortes sometimes pair well with these dessert wines as well. Late harvest Riesling is a classic rich, sweet dessert wine, which pairs well with tangy pies, citrus desserts, and slightly spicy desserts like gingerbread. Late harvest Riesling should not be confused with regular Riesling, which is also a delicious wine that can be used in a number of unique pairings.
Some wineries make late harvest gerwutztraminers. Other wines like Muscats are traditionally dessert wines.
Chocolate can also be paired with heavy red wines, since the two tastes form considerable palate balance. Italians are fond of biscotti and white or red wines.
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