Many of us would confess to possessing a sweet tooth (or two), but when we mix the words "sweet" and "wine," things can get nasty pretty quickly. But there's no reason to be afraid: there's a whole world of wines out there that can be delicious with dessert, without bearing any resemblance to the wine coolers and white Zinfandels of our nightmares. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start exploring.
When pairing dessert wine with food there is one main thing to keep in mind: the wine should be at least as sweet—if not sweeter—than whatever you're eating. A wine with less perceptible sweetness will seem bitter next to a food with more sugar. (That classic Champagne and wedding cake pairing? Complete disaster, unless you choose a demi-sec bubbly. Then it's awesome.) When the wine you're sipping is just a tad sweeter than the dessert you're tasting, both items seem less sugary, allowing other flavors to shine through while keeping your palate fresh for seconds...or thirds.
Here are a few tips for pairing classic Thanksgiving pie with dessert wine.
- Wines that have aged a bit and wines that are made with white grapes tend to work best with pie; young, fruity dessert wines with fresh berry notes can overpower pie and should be saved for chocolate-based sweets.
- Look for wines with acidity: that mouthwatering component keeps the flavors and sugar from feeling too heavy.
- It doesn't take much of these wines to satiate a thirst, and the good news is that the higher sugar and alcohol levels help to preserve the wine; kept sealed in the refrigerator, you can get several days—even weeks—out of one bottle.
Shall we break it down one pie at a time?
What to Drink With Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin pie is central to my Thanksgiving celebration, and it's the one thing that I tend to sneak downstairs late at night to snack on before anyone else gets the chance. Recipes certainly vary, but pumpkin pie leans towards the savory side of desserts, which is the trick in terms of wine pairing. A medium-sweet wine with herbal or nutty flavors plays especially well with the nutmeg and ginger in a classic pie.
Dessert wines that have been exposed to oxygen have a more caramelized and savory flavor that marries well with pumpkin. Those from Rivesaltes, a region in the Roussillon in southern France, are made by stopping fermentation midway with the addition of a spirit, resulting in residual sugar and higher alcohol levels. There are many styles, but those labeled "Ambré" are made from white grapes like Macabeu and Grenache Blanc, and are exposed to oxidation as they age. For pumpkin pie, 2003 Domaine Singla Rivesaltes Ambré 'Héritage du Temps' is an ideal companion, and has plenty of acid and minerality to temper the sugar.
Sherry from Spain is another great option to complement the earthiness of pumpkin pie. The Amontillado style of sherry starts its life under flor, the local yeasts that grow on top of the wine and protect it from oxygen, resulting in complex and salty flavors. In Amontillados the flor dies, and the wine is subsequently exposed to oxygen, adding that nutty quality that pumpkin pie loves. Most are dry, but some have a small amount of Pedro Ximénez (a sweeter style of Sherry) blended in, resulting in a particularly dessert-friendly Amontillado. We love the easy-to-drink Valdespino 'Contrabandista'—each sip is all sugared hazelnuts and salted raisins.
What About Apple?
There are as many different versions of apple pie as there are people making it, but I promise there's a dessert wine for each and every one.
For apple pies that emphasize the fresh, tart flavors of apples (rather than leaning toward the spices), rich white dessert wines are a safe bet. Those from Maury in southern France can be made with white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, and are fortified in the same way as their neighbor Rivesaltes. Fresh apples deserve fresh wine, so look for a young style that has not been exposed to oxygen, like Mas de Lavail 2007 Maury Blanc—it's medium-sweet with the flavor of orange blossom crème brûlée.
If your apple pie is more boldly spiced and sweet, consider bringing out the big guns: aged Port. While most Port is made with red grapes, there are indigenous white varieties that can be used. Regardless of color, the wine is made the same way by the addition of grape spirit during fermentation. Old vintage-dated and Tawny (a style that is exposed to oxygen during aging) Ports can play well with a flavorful apple pie, but consider the rare bird: aged white Port. Casa de Santa Eufemia Special Reserve White Port is a mind-blowing wine that is textured, persistent, full of spicy toffee notes, and worth the splurge.
Pairings for Pecan Pie
Pecan pie tends towards the sweetest side of the spectrum, which means we can really have fun with the pairings. Piles of brown sugar give pecan pie the flavors of molasses and dark honey that are especially well matched to a sip of sweet Madeira. The wines from this Portuguese island are fortified like Port, but are exposed to heat and oxygen to create a delightful burnt character that is unique to Madeira. They can range from bone-dry to quite sweet, but are all marked by high acidity. Look for a sweeter style like one made mostly from Bual or Malmsey, or a bottle marked "Rich"&mdas;it will have the sugar necessary to stand up to pecan pie. Something like Leacock's 5 Year Fine Rich has that requisite sweetness, but also brings a burnt caramel and roasted nut vibe that is typical of Madeira.
If dessert's your favorite part of the meal, I'd recommend going all the way with an icewine for sipping alongside the treats. These full and luscious wines are made from grapes that are picked once they have frozen on the vine, leaving only the concentrated flavor, acid, and sugar to be made into wine. Germany is known for its Eiswein using predominately Riesling grapes. Canada also produces the style from a variety of grapes like Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and the French hybrid Vidal. The Inniskillin 2007 Vidal Gold is made in Canada's Niagara Peninsula and aged in oak barrels, giving it a roundness full of flavors that evoke candied peaches and marmalade.
If you're serving all three pies (or looking for a wine that will be delicious with pancakes the morning after), our pick for flexibility is a medium-sweet Tokaji. This Hungarian wine is made from a variety of local grapes, predominately Furmint, that have been infected by botrytis, the noble rot that shrivels grapes and concentrates flavors. The level of sweetness is indicated on the wine's label by the number of "puttonyos." Look for a bottle like the 2006 Patricius Red Lion 3 Puttonyos. 3 puttonyos is just enough sweetness to go with every pie, but also pairs delightfully with a slew of savory dishes due to the honeyed, mineral flavors. Not too sweet, not too dry... Just right.
If after all that food you can't stomach another bite, let alone an entire slice of pie, a glass of dessert wine may just do the trick before you collapse into bed from a Thanksgiving food coma.
Looking for more Thanksgiving wine picks? Check out our Thanksgiving Drinks Guide, complete with wine, beer, cider, and cocktails.
About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a winemonger and writer living in Brooklyn. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has contributed to Beverage Media, Palate Press, and Foodista, among others. Follow her on Twitter @sarahmchappell.
All wines were provided as samples for review consideration.
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