The Nightcap Corollary: A Guide to Pairing Wine and Dessert

DESSERT! Do I have your attention? Of course I do; a confection creation is euphoria for the sweet tooth. Resistance is futile; science proves it. (Okay, perhaps it is not quite that simple, but we all read those articles wishing it were). The relevant post-meal inquiry is not "are we having dessert," but rather, "what is the perfect beverage to complement my dessert?" After all, dessert deserves a thoughtful pairing.

This month’s Veritas Wine Club, located at the Tchin Tchin Bar in Honolulu’s Chinatown District, explores that critical question with a dessert and wine pairing theme. Sweetness will inevitably ensue.

Admittedly, Americans don't tend to fancy overly-sweet dessert wines. We much prefer raising the whiskey snifter. That, however, was not always the case. The Founding Fathers preferred Madeira as their toasting beverage of choice. And there are many other cultures that have long, storied histories and traditions related to dessert wines. For example, the Brits adore their Port and Sherry, despite the humbling fact that neither are actually their own. The Canadians and Germans stay warm with ice - Eiswein, that is. And, of course, those festive Italians always find occasion for some bubbles.

Could the Wine Club's carefully-crafted pairings recalibrate the impressions of its [stubborn] Yankee patrons? It is a difficult proposition, but Tchin Tchin is up to the challenge...

The Wine and Dessert Pairing Summation

I commence with some basic tips for pairing dessert and wine before we explore the wine club's lineup. A few common factors are considered, and corresponding rules developed, in relation to pairing wines with dessert.

First, acidity. Wines with heightened acidity pair best with desserts also containing natural acidity. Look to fruit-based desserts, in particular.

Second, sweetness. Traditional wisdom dictates that a dessert wine should be sweeter than the dessert itself, or one risks the wine presenting flat.

Third, intensity. The more intense the flavors of a dessert, the more intense the complementing wine must be. Fortified wines (e.g., Port, Sherry, etc.) with high alcohol and concentrated, rich flavors are frequently called upon in this scenario.

Finally, flavors. For dessert and wine pairings, it is best to match complementing flavors in the dessert and wine. While there are excellent examples of opposites attracting (e.g., salty and sweet), most desserts are going to be sweet, and the wine sweeter. In these instances, try to match flavor profiles.

As if by design (it wasn’t), Tchin Tchin’s four-wine selection had a pairing to demonstrate each of the above rules. How convenient. So let’s get to it...

1. Finding Acidity in Fruit and Fizz

Bubbles are always a good beginning. And when you want to sparkle, Italy is the place to be. In Colli Euganei, a Denominazione di Origine Controllata located in central Veneto in the Northwest region of Italy, sparkling wines come in abundance. While Veneto's most sought-after sparkling is Prosecco, there are plenty of other styles from which to choose. For a dessert pairing, it is necessary to select a spumante on the sweeter end of the spectrum. Tchin Tchin has a worthy option.

2015 Vignalta Fior d’Arancio Orange Muscat, Colli Euganei, Veneto, Italy

This wine showcases the aromatic Orange Muscat, a white grape varietal with a distinctive orange aroma believed to be derived from neighboring orange groves growing in the region. On the nose, this fragrant wine has aromas of orange blossoms, tangerine, apricot, white peach, and tropical fruit. The orange parade continues on the palate (it is produced from Orange Muscat, after all), with accents of citrus lemon and apricot. The sweetness is moderate and pleasant, with good acidity and medium effervescence that balanced nicely with rounded creamy elements on the palate. The consensus favorite amongst the patrons.

The Muscat was paired with a pear and apple fruit tart with fresh strawberries and powdered sugar. The tart was soft yet dense, and the bubbles balanced the palate nicely. With apple, pear and fresh strawberries, acidity was a cognizant factor, but the wine was more than game for the tart’s naturally-acidic fruit components. The soft sweetness and orange blossom paired well with autumn flavors of the fruit tart (pear and apple). Overall, this was one of the best pairings.

2. Sherry’s Sweet Sensations

Sherry is a fortified wine produced in the Denominaciones de Origen of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía, located in southwest Spain. The wine is commonly referred to by its English name, Sherry, a corruption of the name, Jerez. If you say it repeatedly, and with a British accent, it must be right.

Phoenician merchants, who founded the nearby port of Cádiz, first planted vineyards in the region before 1,000 B.C. The vineyards of Jerez flourished when it was integrated into the Roman Empire, where wine was considered democratic and a daily necessity. I concur.

Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, Jerez fell by conquest to the Moors, a Muslim civilization of Arab and Berber origins, who controlled Andalucía for seven centuries. Despite Islamic jurisprudence that prohibited the consumption of alcohol, viniculture stubbornly persisted. The Moors also introduced distilled spirits to the region, although it was utilized culturally in the production of perfumes and antiseptic medicines. The sinful, unbelieving natives found a better use: the fortification of local wines.

Sherry rose to the world stage in the 1500s, when it was discovered by the British by virtue of wartime pilfering. The vinous plunders established Sherry as the popular beverage in Elizabethan England. Sherry and Shakespeare, anyone? Caution, however, is advisable; a fondness for Sherry could be the death of you.

The Solera Odyssey: A Blended Pilgrimage

The primary grape varieties of the region are Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. The most important, by an overwhelming margin, is Palomino, accounting for 95 percent of vineyard plantings. It is the preferred grape because, counter intuitively, it lacks character and complexity of flavors. This, however, affords the vinter a blank canvas with which to work. Unlike most wine, Sherry’s flavor profile is predominantly derived from the winemaking process itself.

After the fermentation process, the wines are fortified, graded, and placed into the solera: a tiered system of American oak barrels (called butts) filled with blends of multiple vintages of wine. The number of tiers varies from producer to producer, according to their needs and desired flavor profile, but there are commonly between 4 and 14 tiers. The bottom tier contains the oldest wine in the solera, and each year up to 33 percent of that wine is drawn, bottled, and shipped. This creates ullage (or headspace) in the bottom-layered barrels, which is then filled up with wine from the next oldest layer above, and so on, until the youngest layer (called the criadera or nursery) has partially emptied barrels. Room at the top affords space for the current vintage to be placed into the criadera.  And thus begins the solera sojourn.

This unique, labor-intensive system of aging and blending exposes the wine to significant oxidation and affords a consistent and particular flavor profile from each winemaker. When perfected, the result is a high-quality, complex wine.

There are generally two categories of Sherry. Fino Sherry is a lighter style that is elegant, pale in color, and aromatic. Oloroso Sherry’s saunter through the solera takes more time, subjecting it to increased aging and oxidation. Consequently, Oloroso tends to be darker in color, richer in flavor and often fuller in body, compared to its Fino counterpart.

Emilio Lustau “East India” Solera Reserva Sherry (Non-Vintage)

This Oloroso offers complex aromas of brown sugar, vanilla, cherry, caramel, spices, raisins, chocolate, and orange peel. It is sweet and full-bodied, with smooth, round flavors and balanced acidity.

The Sherry was paired with a deep-fried churro ball packed with classic flavors of cinnamon and sugar. Although the churro is often on the breakfast menu in Spain, it also can receive an extra dose of sugar and be served as an afternoon snack or dessert. This churro had a delicious and [un]healthy concoction of sugar, cinnamon, and milk chocolate. The balanced sweetness of the Sherry complemented the sugar and deep-fried elements. The sweetness of the wine was necessary to rise above the sugar coating of the churro and its deep-fried characteristics. Sweet needs sweeter, and this wine delivered. Best overall pairing.

3. Port + Chocolate Bar = Intensity Squared

Port (also called Porto and Oporto) is named for the city of Oporto located in the Denominação de Origem Controlada of Duoro. The history of Port, like Sherry, has British influence (at least they got the pronunciation correct this time). At war with France (again) in the Seventeenth Century, the English found themselves severed from their cherished clarets of Bordeaux. Pity, pity. To ameliorate their unfortunate circumstances, English wine merchants scoured other regions of Europe for a ready supply of vinous beverages. Douros rustic red wines fit the profile nicely.

One problem. The barrels shipped to England rarely survived the treacherous ocean voyage. To remedy the dilemma, merchants would add a measure of brandy to the wine to stabilize them prior to shipment. The sweet fortified wine found a zealous following in Britain, and the fortification method was soon adopted and perfected in Duoro. Hey, don’t mess with success.

Fortification: Arrested Development

Duoro winemakers are not devoid of grape options (Duoro permits more than 80 grape varietals to be cultivated), but the core varietals for Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa/Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão. Only a few days into fermentation, the wine is spiked with brandy that effectively kills all of the yeast cells and halts fermentation. With arrested fermentation occurring early in the winemaking process, the vinter must act quickly to develop the desired color, tannins, and overall character. If done well, the result is a wine that is sweet yet powerful, structured and intense on the palate.

There are two broad categories of Port: bottle-aged and barrel-aged. The primary difference between these types is oxidation during the aging period, which is minimal for bottle-aged and significant for barrel-aged. As a result, barrel-aged varieties will appear amber in color and have flavors associated with oxidation (e.g., dried fruit, tobacco and caramelized sugar). Bottle-aged varieties, on the other hand, possess a deeper red color and exhibit flavors of ripe fruit.

Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve Port (Non-Vintage)

Six Grapes has ripe black fruit aromas of plums, cherries and blackberries, accented by chocolate, tobacco and baking spice notes. Black fruits drive the palate, led by cherry, blackberry and plum, with subtle notes of raisin, dates and chocolate. Overall, the wine has thicker tannins, balanced sweetness and excellent structure.

To pair, Tchin Tchin offered a layered chocolate bar with a pecan crust, bourbon caramel, and dense, decadent dark chocolate. The chocolate bar was dense and intense, and the wine had to match. The structured Six Grapes stood tall. The chocolate and dark fruit flavors from the Port paired excellently with the bourbon caramel, pecans and chocolate of the chocolate bar.  A solid, albeit intensely sweet, pairing.

4. Madeira Finds the Flavor Connection

The Portuguese Denominação de Origem Controlada of Madeira is an archipelago located 300 miles off the coast of Morocco in Northern Africa. The subtropical island chain, with Madeira and Porto Santo the main islands, is home to large volcanic mountains that rise sharply out of the sea to produce spectacular, steep, jagged coastlines.

Due to its strategic mid-Atlantic location, Madeira was once one of the world’s busiest and most valuable shipping ports. When in port, best to stock up on intoxicants. Madeira’s wine was a perfect match. Fortified with a local sugarcane spirit (evidencing the island’s sugar plantation roots), Madeira was the ultimate sea-worthy beverage, surviving conditions that would quickly spoil other wines. Accordingly, these fortified wines became a preferred purchase for merchants and sailors bound for destinations around the globe.  Worldwide fame ensued.

Interestingly, Maderia not only survived the long, arduous transatlantic voyages, but somehow thrived in the back-and-forth, hot-and-humid hulls of the merchant vessels navigating along the equator. Barrels would be continuously pitched back and forth, accelerating oxidation and intensifying flavors. Employing an equatorial route, the wine was essentially cooked, leading to rich, nutty and burnt-caramel flavors. Tortured wine yields tremendous taste. Some savvy winemakers saw opportunity to have their wines stowed on merchant ships as ballast, enhancing its quality, and selling it at a premium price when the ships returned after months at sea. These wines received a special classification as vinho da roda, or “round trip wine.” Madeira continued to endeavor on this tropical sea meandering until the 1900s, when the practice became impractical. Not to worry; winemakers would find more cost-effective methods to replicate the famed sea-voyaging wine.

Maderization: The Curious Cooking Catalyst

Today, Madeira produces wines under tormented conditions intended to simulate those long, hot ocean voyages. This essentially translates to cooking the wine and allowing it to oxidize in a process known as maderization. This can occur with artificial heating through an Estufagem system of heating the stainless steel vats housing the wine with heated jackets, steam pipes, or a coil system. The finest Madeiras, however, are produced with only natural heating in the Canteiro process. In this process, wines are cask-aged in upper attics or lofts of storage facilities with no temperature control, and even occasionally outside in the direct sun, for years or even decades. During this time the wines would undergo a slower process of maderization to develop intense, complex flavors while avoiding unwanted burnt caramelization that is common with rapid heating.

Blandy’s 5-Year Malmsey, Madeira, Portugal (Non-Vintage)

Produced in the Canteiro method, this Madeira was a beautiful dark, golden brown color with characteristic aromas of raisins, caramel, brown sugar, cherry and toffee. Sweet with a rich, full-bodied profile, but in this case, the wine felt a bit hot on the palate. Every tasting must have a least-preferred, and this poor chap bore the undesirable title.

For the pairing, Tchin Tchin offered up a crème brûlée in the classic style. This pairing relied principally on matching flavors and complementing texture. The creamy texture of the dessert, combined with its vanilla and caramelized flavors, paired fabulously with the smooth texture of the wine and its vanilla, caramel and brown sugar notes. It would have worked brilliantly, but for the hot sensation from the wine that ultimately took away from the overall experience on the palate.

Cheers to Piʻikea, our vinous navigator, and the whole crew at Tchin Tchin for putting together another informative and convivial tasting event.

What are your feelings toward dessert wines? Do you enjoy a sweet nightcap or are you more inclined to break out the whiskey, coffee, or another bottle of Cabernet? Let me know in the comments below!