We tend to fret about what wines to have with dinner, especially dinner parties or family feasts around the holidays. But we overlook dessert, which offers a wide array of wine pairing possibilities. And what about after dessert? When the feast is finished, la grande bouffe is done and you can’t imagine ever eating another bite, not even a wafer-thin mint . . . well, you need another drink.
When dessert comes around, whether we’re having cheese, cake or pastry, we tend to sip whatever wines were not finished with the main course. That’s a missed opportunity. But there are ways to boost the end of your meal into a grand finale.
A cheese course is a great partner for sweet white wines, such as late-harvest rieslings, sauternes or even moscatos. The sweetness of the wine helps cut the fat of the cheese, especially the creamier, funkier curds. The earthiness in the cheese meets the unctuous fruitiness of the wine in a way that enhances the flavors of both. These wines would also be great with fruit tarts.
For chocolate desserts, I recommend a ruby-style port to match richness with richness. For contrast, look to a lighter, slightly sweet sparkling red such as brachetto from Italy. (Bold choice: Sparkling shiraz from Australia or sparkling Norton from Casanel Vineyards in Virginia.)
Aged tawny ports and madeiras are lovely by themselves or with custard desserts such as flan or puddings. The roasted nut flavors in the wine, accented with a hint of citrus rind, also pair well with nut-based cakes and tarts.
And after dessert? One of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking of an after-dinner drink as excessive rather than digestive. That last little dram — emphasis on little — can help settle your stomach and provide a fitting coda to your meal. Old vintage port with cigars is a classic combo. Other fortified wines can fit the bill, too.
“I love a Frasqueira madeira after a long holiday meal, especially a drier style like Sercial,” says Matt Stamp, a master sommelier and co-owner of Compline wine bar and restaurant in Napa, Calif. A Frasqueira is a vintage madeira aged at least 20 years in large wooden casks before bottling. “The wine’s incredible acidity, potent strength and assertive character provide a serious and palate-cleansing end to a long meal,” Stamp says.
My own introduction to the joys of the digestif came many years ago at Restaurant Hélène Darroze in Paris. I usually have trouble remembering what I ate for breakfast, but I vividly recall a tasting menu that began with foie gras ice cream in roasted chestnut soup, followed by a slab of foie gras, a scallop course, the most amazing pork loin in memory, cheese and one or two desserts. Just when I thought I would burst from overindulgence, a server trundled to the table a cart laden with vintage armagnacs made by Francis Darroze, the chef’s father. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, I chose what I hoped would be a modestly priced glass of the vintage from the year I graduated from high school. It was delicious. It settled my stomach, and I walked out of the restaurant fantasizing about the next morning’s croissant.
Armagnac and other brandies are classic after-dinner drinks. So are fruit-flavored schnapps and eaux de vie, potent marc from Burgundy or grappa from Italy. A shot of grappa can awaken the senses while settling the stomach.
Brandies and eaux de vie combine flavors of fruit and alcoholic heat. Perhaps the quintessential coda to a big meal is an amaro. From the Italian word for bitter, amaro is a fortified neutral spirit or wine flavored with medicinal herbs. Vermouth fits in this category and can be a stimulating aperitif, especially over ice with a slice of orange, or after dinner.
The most bitter type of amaro, the bitterest of the bitter, is called fernet, and the darling of this category is Fernet-Branca. Sommeliers, for whom overindulgence is an occupational hazard, swoon at the mention of Fernet-Branca. This entrancing bitter liqueur is flavored with as many as 27 roots and herbs, according to the company website. These include cinchona bark (helps with digestion), chamomile (helps with relaxation), cinnamon (antioxidant, aphrodisiac), linden (more of the latter), iris (antiseptic), and saffron (energy and mood boost).
It can be an acquired taste. Or something, as the saying used to go, we would drink “for medicinal purposes only.”
“I used to think amaro was the most vile thing I ever tasted,” says Erik Segelbaum, a sommelier, consultant and wine educator based in Washington, D.C. “But then I realized it made me feel better after a big meal. Now I love it, and that flavor signals to me that I will feel better.” He attributes the restorative properties to the flavorings, not the alcohol.
A shot of Fernet-Branca, or another amaro, is a fitting end to a meal, Segelbaum says. “It’s like the period at the end of a sentence,” he says. “It doesn’t change the meaning, it just says, ‘We’re done!’ ”