Valentine’s Day is just a few days away, and while we may be single ladies in NYC, that doesn’t mean we don’t have romance on our minds! But for us, romance isn’t necessarily about candlelight dinners and roses (although we’ll happily accept both). Instead, it’s all about the perfect wine. So on a day dedicated to love and sweets of all kinds, we couldn’t wait to share our love of dessert wine with you!
If you’ve never had dessert wine, trust us when we tell you that it can be magical. When paired with the right dessert, it adds a finishing touch to a meal in a way that no other wine can. It’s that special detail that can turn an ordinary Valentine’s Day menu into an extraordinary one!
Dessert Wine Styles
You’ve probably noticed that dessert wines tend to be more expensive than your average glass of wine. That’s because they’re time-consuming to make and often require sophisticated vinification techniques to produce. They come in a variety of styles, flavors and price points, which all depend on how they’re made. While this list is by no means exhaustive, most dessert wines fall into one of the following categories:
- Sparkling: Dessert-style sparkling wines can be red, white or rosé, semi-sweet or sweet. There are different sugar levels in sparkling wines and Champagne, but semi-sweet styles have about 32-50 grams of sugar/liter and sweet styles have about 50+ grams of sugar/liter. Look for terms on the wine label such as moelleux, demi-sec, doux, amabile, dolce, or dulce to indicate that the wine is sweet
- Straw Wine / Passito: These wines are made from grapes that have been semi-dried, usually by laying them on straw mats or hanging them from racks. During this drying process, the grapes begin to raisinate, which concentrates their sugars and basically turns their juice into a thick, sweet syrup before pressing. The longer they dry, the sweeter the syrup will be. Although dry wines can be made in this style, the majority of straw wines are vinified sweet.
- Late Harvest: Late harvest wines are made from grapes that have been left on the vine until they reach their maximum level of ripeness. Depending on the style of the wine, they can even be left on the vine long enough to naturally dehydrate. The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the more the sugars concentrate.
- Botrytized: Botrytized wines are those made with grapes affected by a rot called botrytis, or “noble rot,” which is actually considered a good thing in viticulture. Botrytis only occurs under specific climate conditions that cannot be controlled; if the conditions aren’t right, noble rot doesn’t occur. When botrytis does occur, it attacks the grapes and dehydrates them, which in turn concentrates their sugars. However, botrytis doesn’t attack grape clusters evenly, so the grapes must be handpicked one by one, often requiring multiple sweeps through the vineyard over a period of days or weeks, to ensure that only those grapes infected with botrytis are harvested. Because of the painstaking harvesting technique and lack of control over Mother Nature, well-made botrytized wines are expensive and limited in production.
- Vins Doux Naturel (“VDN”): These wines start off like dry wines, but during vinification a neutral grape spirit is added to stop fermentation before all the sugars are converted to alcohol. The resulting wine is sweet due to the residual sugar that is left after fermentation is stopped.
- Fortified: Fortified wines are wines in which Brandy (most common) or another neutral spirit is added, but unlike VDNs, the addition of the spirit can occur during or after fermentation. When added during fermentation the resulting wines are usually sweet; when added after, the resulting wines are usually dry. Fortified wines are higher in alcohol content and tend to have a longer shelf life after they are open.
- Ice Wine (“Eiswein”): Traditional ice wines are made from grapes that are frozen while still on the vine, hand-harvested (usually in the middle of the night) and then pressed while frozen. Because only the water in the grapes freezes and not the sugars, when the grapes are pressed, the frozen ice separates from the grapes and is removed, leaving behind a super concentrated juice. These wines are commonly produced in cold climate areas like Germany and Canada, and because harvesting is so difficult and yields are so low, they are rare and very expensive.
We know that there are a lot of dessert wines out there to choose from, so to get some sweet with sweet pairing suggestions we spoke to two of our favorite NYC wine experts: Yannick Benjamin, Sommelier at The University Club and lead lecturer at Le Du’s Wines; and Jennifer Leopold, Assistant Sommelier at Casa Mono, a Michelin-starred, Mario Batali-owned restaurant specializing in Spanish wines. Here are their amazing wine recommendations and decadent dessert pairings to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company Blue-Red Label Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos
Region: Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary
Grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu & Yellow Muscat
Average price: $61
Yannick’s pairing notes: “This wine has the perfect harmony and elegance to go with desserts that contain baked apple, dried fruits, candied orange, apricot, and honey flavors. My ideal dessert to pair with the Royal Tokaji is the Tarte Tatin, which is an upside-down tart in which the apples are caramelized in butter and sugar before the tart is baked.”
2012 Domaine Renardat-Fâche Bugey Cerdon Rosé
Region: Savoie, France
Grapes: Gamay & Poulsard
Average price: $21
Yannick’s pairing notes: “At the estate of Domaine Renardat-Fâche, they practice a technique called ‘ancestral method’ where the fermentation process continues within the bottle. Due to this technique, this wine has a real freshness and grapiness to it and a good amount of bubbles. It has lots of red fruit aromas such as wild strawberry and crushed raspberries, which makes it a great pairing for red fruit-based desserts. I suggest a very simple, but flavorful, dessert such as a Chiffon Cake with Strawberries and Cream. The red fruit aromas in the wine will go well with the flavors of the dessert, and the bubbles will cut through the creaminess.”
NV Emilio Lustau ‘Solera Reserva’ Deluxe Cream Capataz Andres Sherry
Region: Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Grapes: Palomino & Pedro Ximenez
Average Price: $18
Jennifer’s pairing notes: “Sherry is a versatile wine, with styles ranging from dry to nutty to syrupy sweet. For dessert, you want to choose a sweet Sherry in order to match the sweetness of the dessert, so I would suggest a Cream Sherry. Cream Sherry is an Oloroso Sherry that has been sweetened with the Pedro Ximenez grape. It has a nutty aroma from the oxygen purposely left in the barrel while aging, and flavors of raisins, figs and chocolate. It’s a perfect pairing for pecan pie or a chocolate dessert with nuts.”
NV Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez
Region: Montilla-Moriles, Spain
Grapes: Pedro Ximenez
Average Price: $44
Jennifer’s pairing notes: “This type of Sherry is a passito-style wine that has also been fortified. It is made solely from Pedro Ximenez grapes, which have been dried until the grapes become raisins so the resulting wine is extremely sweet. It has aromas/flavors of Crème Brûlée, nuts, caramel, and maple syrup, and because of its sweetness, it’s perfect for super-sweet desserts such as molten lava chocolate cake or ice cream sundaes. In fact, you can even pour this wine directly on top of the ice cream for an extra special treat!”
And a few recommendations of our own:
NV Broadbent Reserve 5 Years Old
Region: Madeira, Portugal
Grapes: Blend of Malmsey, Boal, Verdelho, Sercial & Tinta Negra
Average Price: $23
Mel’s pairing notes: “Madeira is an island off the coast of Portugal that produces fortified wines of the same name. It comes in four styles ranging from dry to sweet, which is determined by the grapes used and when the wines are fortified. Once fortified, all Madeira undergoes one of two heating processes, estufagem (wine is mechanically heated in stainless steel vats) or canteiro (wine is naturally heated in warm attics), during which time the wine is essentially cooked and given its distinctive character. This process caramelizes the sugars and gives sweet Madeiras the aromas/flavors of toffee, vanilla, chocolate, roasted nuts, and coffee, as well as a distinct tanginess on the palette. Now, personally, I usually bypass desserts and go straight for the cheese plate instead, but when I want dessert, it’s always going to be chocolate. And Madeira is the ultimate wine pairing for both! Thanks to its intense fruitiness and refreshing acidity, Madeira not only pairs well with hard cheeses that have a nutty quality to them, like Gruyere and Parmigiano, but it also enhances the sweet flavors in chocolate.”
2004 Felsina Berardenga Vin Santo Chianti Classico
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Grapes: Trebbiano & Malvasia
Style: Straw Mat / Passito
Average Price: $84
Allie’s pairing notes: “Vin Santo (or ‘holy wine’) is a passito-style wine made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, but what makes it rarer than other passito wines is its aging process. After drying the grapes, Vin Santo is fermented and aged for a minimum of three years (and up to eight years), during which time the barrels are never topped so the wine is in contact with a bit of oxygen. This gives it an amber color and an oxidized, nutty flavor. Like Sherry, Vin Santo styles range from super dry to extra sweet, my favorite being semi-sweet. This style pairs perfectly with desserts that aren’t overly sweet such as cookies and nut or fruit-based tarts. In Tuscany, Vin Santo is served with a giant plate of cantuccini (or Tuscan biscotti) at almost every meal—it’s like a grown-up version of cookies and milk, in that you dunk the cantuccini right into your Vin Santo. And of course, if you’re anything like me or my mom, you’ll drink whatever is left in your glass, mushy cookie bits and all!”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
We’re thrilled to have shared our love of dessert wine with you and hope you’ll branch out and try something new this Valentine’s Day. With so many delicious dessert wines to choose from, why not give your sweetheart something a little unexpected and pair one with his/her favorite dessert? After all, you can’t go wrong by adding a little more sweetness to your evening of love!
And for those of you who are single like us, just remember that you don’t need a special someone in your life in order to indulge. Treat yourself to a sweet with sweet pairing that will make you happy—we’re certainly planning to!
NYC native Yannick Benjamin is currently a sommelier at the The University Club and lead lecturer for Saturday seminars at Le Du’s Wines. A visit to Bordeaux at age 13 inspired Yannick to get involved with wine, and he went on to work at Le Cirque, Oceana, Jean Georges and Atlas prior to becoming a sommelier at Felidia and Atelier at the Ritz Carlton. He is currently an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and has worked on the retail side of the wine world at Le Du’s Wines for over seven years. In October 2003, a car accident left Yannick paralyzed below the waist, so he quickly adapted, outfitting his wheelchair with a table that allows him to continue to perform the tasks of a sommelier. Yannick’s current passion is his non-profit organization Wheeling Forward, which he started with partner Alex Elegudin in 2011.
Jennifer Leopold is the Assistant Sommelier at Casa Mono, a Michelin-starred, Mario Batali restaurant specializing in Spanish wines. Jennifer is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and prior to joining the Casa Mono team she spent 16 in advertising and marketing before changing careers to follow her passion for wine.
Allison Albanese has worked in the finance industry for the last seven years as a Managing Director of Investor Relations for a hedge fund in NYC. She is also the founder of Parched: NYC, a website launching soon that is dedicated to all things cocktail, wine and beverage-related in NY. Allison is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.
Melissa Diaz has spent over 12 years working in the media industry and is currently the Consumer Insights Director at Parade Media Group. Prior to joining Parade she worked at the New York Times in Advertising Market Research. Melissa is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.