Photo: Cooper Sheehan
Photo: Cooper Sheehan

A Tasteful Trend: Dessert Wines on the Rise

From sweet madeira to dry sherry, dessert wines are making a comeback.

Compared to their regular red and white wine cousins, dessert wines are often sweeter and have higher alcohol content, which has turned some wine connoisseurs off in the past according to beverage directors from local spots ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar, Maxwell Park and Flight Wine Bar.

In recent years, however, wine experts have noticed a piqued interest in dessert wines. Flight Wine Bar Owner Swati Bose says the trend in dessert wines is traced back to a greater enthusiasm in all wine in general.

“I think part of the reason people are interested in dessert wine is we have a growing interest in wine and people are more interested in exploring it and [are] less afraid,” Bose says. “As people learn more about wine, [dessert wine] is another part of wine they’re learning about. The whole culture of wine is becoming part of our day-to-day lives.”

Last year, Bose added flights of madeira and sherry to the menu at her Chinatown wine bar after she noticed her customers were more interested in learning about the varietals.

Mollie Bensen, general manager and beverage director at ANXO in Truxton Circle, believes sweet wines “made with skill and care can be truly transcendent” and can even change people’s opinions on dessert wines. Although ANXO – DC’s first cidery – is best-known for their namesake libation, they also have an extensive wine and cocktail selection, which is Bensen’s main focus.

“I think wines with sweetness, much like wines that have been oaked, have gotten such a bad rap over the past few years that many people have eschewed them entirely,” Bensen says. “The issue was never the sweetness or the oak, but rather that each were used to cover flaws in the wine.”

One category of high-quality dessert wine is madeira. According to Maxwell Park Beverage Director Brent Kroll, madeira is “indestructible” and highly versatile. Because of its longevity, spending the extra cash on a quality bottle of madeira is worth the investment. Although it is classified as a dessert wine, madeira is also a great aperitif before a meal.

“The palate is stimulated by acid and sugar, not just acid, so [madeira is] great to really get your palate excited,” Kroll says. “I think for dessert it’s one of those forgotten gems.”

Bose suggests pairing madeira with savory foods like cheeses, nuts and olives instead of traditional sweet desserts.

“People think of madeira as a dessert wine and they have it with dessert, but in truth, it’s so complex and delicious that it can be paired with anything,” she says.

Like Flight Wine Bar, Kroll also sees an increased interest in both madeira and sherry at his Shaw wine bar. He attributes madeira’s rise in popularity to its indestructibility.

“[Madeira] has a ton of acid and you can get drier styles,” he says. “This is a shift from the wines of the 70s and 80s when people gravitated toward wines with dinner that had more sugar like off-dry chardonnays.”

As the holiday season approaches and you’re wondering what kind of wine to serve, follow these tips from Bose, Bensen and Kroll to blow your dinner guests away.

Mollie Bensen, ANXO

“One helpful trick for pairing dessert wines is to match the color of the drink to the color of the dessert. Light-colored wines like sauternes go well with custards and vanilla-based dishes, spicier and fruitier desserts match well with a high-acid oloroso sherry, and chocolate and caramel pair excellently with port.”

“Another way to serve dessert wines is to use them in cocktails. At ANXO, we have a variation of a negroni using mezcal, campari and ice cider. We substituted Heirloom Blend from Eden [ice cider] in place of sweet vermouth, so we needed an equally high-intensity spirit to match it. Smoky mezcal was the perfect complement. I also like to use dry sherries in a gin martini, especially manzanilla with its slight salinity.”

“It’s important to remember that a dessert wine is exactly that – wine, and needs to be treated as such. With the exception of madeira, I’d recommend keeping dessert wines in the fridge for optimal longevity.”

Restaurant & Pintxos Bar: 300 Florida Ave. NW, DC
Cidery & Tasting Room:
711 Kennedy St. NW, DC; www.anxodc.com

Swati Bose, Flight Wine Bar

“Go for two different types of dessert wines: one a drier style and one a sweeter style because not everyone around the dessert table is going to like the same type of dessert wine, and that tends to be what normally scares people off of dessert wine. I think having two options that pair with the same food would be a nice idea. If you wanted to go for madeira, you could have something like sercial, which is a dry madeira, and something sweet like colheita, and pair them with the same dish.”

“The other option would be to do an off-dry riesling with a really nice acid structure, so it holds up really well. And you can go with a sweeter muscat so it gives people two options to try something.”

“One of my favorites [to pair with sercial and colheita] is blue cheese. But I understand not everybody likes blue cheese, so I would go with a crumbly, nutty cheese. If you don’t have a nut allergy, you could also go with a dessert with a hazelnut or anything with dark chocolate.”

“For the riesling and muscat, the riesling works with Asian flavors and spice flavors. The muscat would go well with a carrot cake, the riesling would go well with that too. Pumpkin pie has nice spice notes to it and that would balance the wines really well.”

777 6th St. NW, DC; www.flightdc.com

Brent Kroll, Maxwell Park

“I think doing something like a port and a blue cheese might be cool. Even with sweet sherry that can last longer, I think it’s good to look for half bottles of sherry and port. Or if you find madeira, it’s super versatile and can be paired with rich meats and savory courses. It’s indestructible so you could have a glass a year for the next six holidays. I think having a couple ounces at the end of a meal is the way to go. It’s also a safer bet for venturing into [dessert wines].”

1336 9th St. NW, DC; www.maxwellparkdc.com

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Amanda Weisbrod

Amanda is currently a senior at Ohio University, and will graduate with a bachelor's degree in journalism, news and information in December 2018. She has written for multiple professional publications including Cincinnati Magazine, CityBeat and Athens Messenger. Amanda loves to play the saxophone, watch cult classic movies, and hang out with her handsome cat, Darko.