Many of these desserts feature spices and dried fruits that once were exotic, not to mention expensive, and signified just how special these occasions were. For better or for worse, we can all now get things like ginger, cardamom, dried citron peel or Craisins, and we're prepared to use them. Over and over again if necessary!
There are few times during the year that I enjoy dessert wines as much as during the holidays. Not only is it cold outside, making the warmth of dessert more important, but the flavors of these desserts call out for a complimentary pairing. Having enough people around the table to enjoy and finish every bottle certainly helps as well. Here are some of my favorite pairings!
Photo courtesy villoks via Flickr/CC
Gingerbread is a staple during the holidays, whether it be for gingerbread men or a gingerbread house. While I love both of them, neither makes a particularly elegant dessert for a sumptuous dinner. The English figured out how to do that when they created their Christmas Pudding.
Actually a rich, dense spice cake, Christmas Pudding is a great foil for rich, fruity dessert wines like port.
Port comes in many forms, from the most famous vintages to the aged and nutty tawnies. For a cake like Christmas Pudding, you want a port that will emphasize its fruitiness.
A young port, like a ruby, or a late bottled vintage port is an ideal partner for this cake and a great way to cap off a meal. Late Bottle Vintage Ports (aka LBV) are post-single vintage that lack some of the depth and ageing potential of true vintage ports. They are generally ready to drink on release and are often great values. Graham makes a sweeter, fruitier style of port. Their 2007 LBV is ready to go and can stand up to everything this Christmas Pudding can muster.
Fruitcake, it's not just for re-gifting. Much like Rodney Dangerfield, fruitcakes get no respect. These loaves of dried fruits and nuts, often leaden and ancient, seem to appear like magic every holiday season. No one admits to eating them, but they are all gone by the time New Year's rolls around.
Weird, isn't it?
I guess folks are sneaking off to basements and closets to enjoy their fruitcakes, and the best wine to pair with basements and closets is something big, rich and super intense. Something that compliments the dried fruit flavors at the essence of fruitcake. A wine made from dried fruit would be a good start. I think Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet version of Italy's famous Amarone, is an ideal match for fruitcake. Corte Sant'Alda's 2008 version is not overly sweet, but it packs in dense, layered flavors of both fresh and dried fruit that are simply delicious and bold enough for any fruitcake.
Christmas Stollen are a traditional dessert through German-speaking Europe. There are many iterations, but the basic theme is fairly consistent. An unsweetened dough, which resembles bread as much as it resembles cake, is peppered through with chunks of the ubiquitous dried fruits of the season and then topped with vanilla flavored powdered sugar.
It's an ingenious blend of savory and sweet that traces its roots back to the 14th century! How's that for traditional? Another great German tradition is that of sweet wines from the Noble Riesling grape. There are several levels of sweetness and intensity that differentiate Germany's dessert wines, from the sweet Auslese to the sweeter Beerenauslese. The more complex and rare Trockenbeerenauslese to the epitome of German Riesling, Eiswein. I prefer wines at the ends of the spectrum, and a super fine Auslese is my choice for pairing with Stollen. The 2005 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr is rich and powerful, with loads of sweet fruit that make it a great Stollen wine.
Photo courtesy nicisme via Flickr/CC
Panettone is one of Italy's greatly exported gastronomic wonders, though unlike most of those wonders, Panettone continues to be produced primarily in Italy.
This wonderfully light, slightly sweet cake dotted with preserved fruits has become a staple of Christmas around the world, and it is surprisingly difficult to pair with wine. Much lighter than many typical holiday desserts, Panettone is more of a snack than a real meal breaker. It's delightful for brunch, made into french toast, or with one's afternoon tea, but there is a classic match that you just have to try.
Moscato d'Asti is a lightly sweet, sparkling wine produced very close to Panettone's hometown of Milano. It's one those "grows together, goes together" moments when you finally have the pairing. That pairing is best as an afternoon snack. Some Panettone, a few glasses of Moscato, which is deliciously low in alcohol, followed by an espresso. Ah heaven! La Spinetta makes one of the best Moscatos and it's easy to find! So I don't want to hear any excuses from you. Try this!
And now we come to my traditional holiday dessert. My mother is Hungarian, and all my life I've looked forward to my grandmother's Beigli for the holidays. While Nonna (the other half is Italian, go figure) is no longer here to bake our Beigli, we still make sure to have some each year.
A rolled cake with a thin crust, apricot preserves as a sweetener, and either walnut or poppy seed filling (poppy seed for me), Beigli is a moderately sweet dessert with a lovely interplay of earthy and sweet flavors.
Being Hungarian, it's not surprising that I would reach for a Tokaj to pair with this. In particular, I am quite partial to the wines from the Royal Tokaji Wine Company. Their wines have an extra layer of complexity that some think of as dirty in comparison to the squeaky clean, more modern versions of this luscious dessert wine. I just find that added level of complexity to add interest to the palate.
Tokaji comes in varying levels of sweetness, from the modestly sweet 3 Puttonyos, to my preferred 5 Puttonyos, and on to the hyper sweet and concentrated, yet impeccably balanced Essenzias. I am a big fan of the 2006 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttnoyos Red Label and look forward to sharing a bottle this Christmas!
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