Of all the sensations that stir the human palate, none is more natural than sweetness. From infancy, sweet things simply taste good—long before the palate responds favorably to salty, sour, bitter, and savory flavors—indicating the evolutionary significance of pure yumminess.
In terms of wine, sweetness often gets the Scarlet Letter treatment. Dry wine is considered more serious, refined, proper. But, after dinner, sweet is expected—and a variety of dessert wines beckon adventurous diners.
Stylistically, options range from light, peppy lip smackers to heavy, viscous fortified wines such as Port. Regardless of composition and provenance, what matters most is what dessert wines share: intensity that makes them easy to appreciate in very small servings. Sweetness is never the focal point of great dessert wine; it’s a starting point, upon which flavors ranging from citrus and stone fruits to honey and caramel are layered. Given their potency, it’s enticing to enjoy a great dessert wine by itself. Adding dessert, needless to say, compounds the pleasure.
Looking to show some love to your sweet tooth next time you dine out? The Muscat (or Moscato) grape is a great place to start, thanks to its naturally intense, peachy character. At the aptly named Moscato in Scarsdale (874 Scarsdale Ave, 914-723-5700), try a flute of a light, sparkling Ceretto Moscato d’Asti with the banana tortino, or Colosi’s richer, non-bubbly Sicilian version with the house cheesecake featuring an amaretto-cookie crust. Apples, a staple of fall in the Hudson Valley, represent the raison d’être of tarte Tatin. John Pratt of Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown Heights (673 Croton Heights Rd, 914-962-4090) makes a great one, which he suggests enjoying with a French Muscat de Beaumes de Venise or Bonny Doon’s “faux” Muscat ice wine, coyly dubbed Vin de Glacière.
Once winter has started, many wine lovers reach for Port after dinner. Because Port is fortified with an extra boost of alcohol, it is hefty and warming by design. If you like your Port straight up, most of the county’s steak houses are well stocked. At the Willett House in Port Chester (20 Willett Ave, 914-939-7500), for example, you can sip a sublime, nutty, wood-aged 20- or 30-year-old Fonseca Tawny, or one of the more fruit-focused bottle-aged Ports by the house of Taylor-Fladgate. Port is a good partner for chocolate desserts; Sandeman Ruby Port goes nicely with the chocolate fondue at Brasserie Swiss in Ossining (118 Croton Ave, 914-941-0319).
A jaunt across the Tappan Zee to Freelance Café & Wine Bar in Piermont (506 Piermont Ave, 845-365-3250) will reward the eclectically inclined after-dinner palate with a revolving selection of eight or nine options, all reasonably priced in the $10-$20 per glass range. Bottles on tap might include a lush, golden late-harvest Sauternes; an exotic, honeyed Tokaji from Hungary; a caramel-tinged “PX” sherry from Spain; or even an odd bird such as the Uruguayan sweet surprise called Alcyone, made from thick-skinned Tannat grapes.
If you’d like to serve a dessert wine at home, look for economical half-bottles, which can serve up to 10 easily. One golden rule to keep in mind when pairing dessert wine with dessert: keep the wine as sweet or sweeter than the dish; this keeps the chance for clashing to a minimum. A good all-purpose companion for dessert wines is biscotti, as the cookie’s simplicity allows the wine to shine. Light sweet wines such as Moscato d’Asti are best served very cold to retain their freshness. Too much chillin’ will cramp the style of heavier types, however, inhibiting aroma, flavor, and texture.