Valentine’s Day is right around the corner; whether you celebrate the day or not is your choice, so this is not a paean to the marketing juggernaut that annually sweeps in on our sensibilities and our pocketbooks. Rather, consider this as an opportunity to ponder how best to imbibe the sweeter side of wines, along with a few suggestions what might best pair with various treats. Undoubtedly, chocolate is the heavy hitter when folks decide to gift their significant others on February 14. That’s interesting, because there was nothing romantic about chocolate in its earliest incarnations. Xocolatl, or “bitter water,” was a Mesoamerican drink made from ground cacao beans, chiles and spices, but when Richard Cadbury, in the 1800’s, finally devised a way to make chocolate bars that tasted good and were affordable, the craze for giving chocolates was born. However, there are many other confections, baked treats, and culinary delights that don’t have much or anything at all to do with chocolate. What about them? Are they chopped liver? They might be. A bit of advice: you don’t need to celebrate with sweet wines only on February 14. Shock of shocks. Sweet wines can be a perfect finale to any dinner, but they do have a place with appetizers and main dishes. They don’t always have to accompany confections or baked goods. This is by no means an exhaustive survey, nor is it a prescription; however, it will assist you making choices. Aligra Wine and Spirits carries a great selection of all the styles of wine below, and more as well!
This light, versatile grape produces delicious wines that actually taste ‘grapey’. Often with a light frizzante, they can be a perfect accompaniment to appetizers of all kinds, spicy mains (Thai, Mexican), and light desserts such as chocolate mousse. Serve them very cold.
Port is a fortified wine, usually red, that has its origins in Portugal. Other expressions are made all over the world, but ‘true’ Port must be made only from grapes grown in the Douro River valley, a couple of hours inland from Porto and one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world (dating from 1756). Most wine makers are sensitive to the significance of place, and defer from calling their fortified wines ‘Port’. There are many styles of Port; I will highlight just a few.
The youngest style. Pair with blue cheeses, dark chocolate desserts and desserts made with berries and cherries. Serve slightly below room temperature. (16 – 18°C/60 – 64°F)
Kind of an in-between Port: they have been aged 4-6 years before bottling, but do not have the vintage designation. One example that we carry in the store is Fonseca Bin 27. Pair with goat cheese, almonds, blue cheese, brownies, nuts, and dishes in a mole sauce. Serve slightly below room temperature. (16 – 18°C/60 – 64°F)
- Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)
As with Vintage Character Port, LBV has been aged 4-6 years and then bottled. It is a further step up on the Port hierarchy; the vintage year will be marked on the label. It has characteristics of true vintage Port, and can be cellared for a good period of time. Pair with similar foods as to Vintage Character Port; a tried and true match: Port and Stilton. Serve slightly below room temperature. (16 – 18°C/60 – 64°F)
These wines have been aged in barrels. They are then bottled at specific designations, usually 10Year, 20Year, 30Year, 40Year. The age statements indicate in general how old the wine is; because they are blends, some of the wine in the bottle may be older than the age statement, some might be younger. They have different characteristics from Ruby and LBV Ports. Their color will be golden brown and they will express notes of raisins, nuts, and dried fruits. Pair with blue cheese, foie gras, chocolate cheesecake, ham, roasted almonds, apple pie, fruit cake, tiramisu, and crème brûlée. The older a Tawny Port is, the better it pairs with intense foods as the wine develops more and more complicated flavours: ergo a 20yr wil be more intense than a 10 yr, and so on. Serve at 55°F to 58°F/ 14°-16°C
Late Harvest and Botrytized Wines
These wines are made by allowing the grapes to hang on the vines after they are fully ripe, dessicating them and concentrating the sugars. Late harvest wines can be made from a variety of white wine grapes, some common ones are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon. They range in sweetness from off-dry to very sweet indeed. Botrytized wines epitomize the extreme of this procedure: grapes are allowed to remain on the vine until they are attacked by what is called ‘Noble Rot’, which acts to shrivel undamaged white grapes until they look so disgusting as to be completely ruined. These grapes, however, are capable of producing the most sublime and certainly some of the longest-lived wines in the world. At Aligra, we carry a few Late Harvest wines, and one particularly excellent example of a Botrytized wine: Tokaji Aszu.
Try pairing with pound cake, spicy foods, nutty cheeses such as Comté. Serve cold. (45–55°F/7–13°C)
Pair with Fois Gras, cream based puddings such as Crème Caramel and Crème Brulee. Pair also with pungent cheeses. Serve cold. ( 42-50°F/ 6-10°C)
A unique, rarified wine that has made a home in Canada (I wonder why). Its origin is German: Eiswein, but the Canadian VQA laws regulating its production are more stringent than Germany’s. Taking ‘late harvest’ past extreme, it is made by allowing the grapes to freeze solid on the vines before harvest. The freezing acts to draw most of the water from the grapes, leaving a super concentrated pulp brimming with sugar. The fermentation of the grapes is agonizingly slow, but the result is an exquisite elixir. Riesling grapes are commonly used, but Canada has had phenomenal success with Vidal. Red grapes are also used: Cabernet Franc a prominent one. Pair with fruit-driven desserts, cheesecake, ice cream and with soft cheeses like Brie and pungent cheeses such as Stilton. Serve chilled. (50-55°F/10-12°C)
Pedro Ximénez [HE-men-eth], or PX as it’s affectionately called, epitomizes the adage that a little goes a long way. Spanish in provenance, it is made from a white grape with the same name. This dessert wine is crafted by drying the grapes on esparto grass mats under the hot Spanish sun, concentrating the sweetness and raisinating the grapes. The resulting wine is fortified and aged in the Solera system, as are other sherries. It is unlike any wines we are most familiar with: thick, dark mahogany in color, syrupy. It is an experience like few others in the wine world. It is so sweet, it can handle things like vanilla ice cream, which would make most other wines taste thin and tart. Pair with the sweetest desserts: butter tarts, mince pies, cakes, ice cream. Pair it with the usual pungent cheese suspects. Pour it on your breakfast pancakes. Put it in a glass, and stare at it, marvelling at its singular rarity. Serve slightly chilled. (53-55°F/12-13°C)
You can see that there are patterns in the pairings, and I hope this helps in your decisions what to purchase, and how best to pair with your treats at the table. There are other sweet wines that I have not highlighted here, but at least this is a start. And alright, fine, if you want to call chopped liver Fois Gras, be my guest!
List Of Sources
Barber, Casey, How Chocolate Fell In Love With Valentine’s Day, February 12, 2021, CNN
Becca, Wine Law 101: What’s In a Name?, June 21, 2011, Academic Wino
Butler, Stephanie, How Chocolate Became a Valentine's Day Staple, History, updated January 4, 2021,
Koehler, Jeff, How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not So Innocent) Consort To Valentine's Day, February 14, 2017, NPR Radio
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2001
Maerker, Jenevieve , Port in Porto, Portugal: Wine And Geographical Indications At PTMG, March 19th, 2018, Pharmaceutical Trade Marks Group
Maurice K. Beaver, Maurice K., Port and Food Pairing, March 7, 2021, Drink and Pair
Original, February 8, 2013.
Puckette, Madeline, Late Harvest Wines and Why They’re Awesome, Wine Folly
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Welsh, Peter R., What Are the10 Most Popular Valentine’s Gifts? , February 7, 2022, Smart Wills