At my first wine education class, the instructor issued a mandate: Dessert wine must always be sweeter than the dessert itself. I don’t like cloying sweet wines, nor do I like sugary desserts, so for many years, I took a pass on these wines and their pairings.
As wine lists have become more wide-ranging and exploratory, I began to suspect I was missing out by ignoring an entire category of wine. But what finally turned me around was Wine Style, the latest cookbook from wine expert Kate Leahy. In her book, Leahy shares recipes designed to pair with wine, with an entire chapter devoted to dessert and dessert wines. She notes that while some dessert wines are sweet, others are more tart, reminiscent of “citrus zests, toasted nuts, spices and wildflowers, all bathed in honey and acidity.” She promised that even a skeptic like me could find dessert wines to suit my palate.
“The dessert wines that are special and worth seeking out leverage sweetness to show off nutty or orange blossom notes,” she says, noting that a light sparking wine that is low in alcohol, like the Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti Sourgal, is always a good option. “If you are at the end of your meal, a glass of Moscato d’Asti can enliven your taste buds and refresh your palate for dessert.”
To further her point, Leahy created a fruit-topped dessert focaccia. Her Sweet Plum Focaccia is tender with a delicate, airy crumb. The plums develop a wonderful sweetness while baking, boosted by the turbinado sugar and contrasted by the rosemary leaves and flaky sea salt atop each loaf. Those savory notes make it easy to find a dessert wine that is sweeter than the focaccia. Leahy says late-harvest and ice wines are ideal here; the Eroica ice wine from Horse Heaven Hills in Washington state is a Riesling ice wine with apricot and honey notes, but enough acidity to keep it from veering into cloying sweetness.
When she wanted to pair dessert with an Italian passito, Leahy created a Pear, Honey, and Parmigiano-Reggiano Tart that similarly walks the line between sweet and savory — it’s topped with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, pears and honey. She says this focaccia would pair nicely with Malvasia Delle Lipari DOC Passito-Virgona, from the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily. Another one of her favorite wines for this pairing is Passito di Pantelleria: 2020 Donnafugata Ben Ryé. It’s an Italian passito with a golden color and notes of candied orange peel, apricot, and honey. The black pepper-flecked drizzle of honey on top complements the wine, and the dessert wine and good cheese each work to make the other more special. It’s an especially Italian combination, she says — one that does double duty as a dessert and a cheese course, and is sophisticated enough to lure any dessert wine skeptic to the table.
Pear, Honey, and Parmigiano-Reggiano Tart
This sweet and savory dessert tart pairs Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and freshly cracked black pepper with juicy pears and a drizzle of fragrant honey. The addition of Parmigiano-Reggiano to the pastry dough gives Kate Leahy’s already flaky crust an extra richness and a subtle nutty flavor. It’s a perfect dessert to pair with a Passito or other dessert wine.
Sweet Plum Focaccia
With a delicate and airy crumb, this focaccia is the perfect showcase for ripe plums, which caramelize in the oven as the focaccia bakes. The delicate sweetness from the fruit is contrasted by fragrant rosemary and a sweet-salty crunch from a sprinkle of turbinado sugar and flaky sea salt, yielding a balanced pastry that’s perfect for pairing with a dessert wine; Kate Leahy says late-harvest and ice wines are an ideal pairing.