Vino 101 Grape Expectations (Part Three)
By Jorge Eduardo Castillo

Here's one of the things I always ask when in restaurant staff training: "When do you recommend a bottle or glass of sparkling wine to a guest?"

Without fail, the answers will be "on New Year's Eve," "a birthday," or "a wedding or anniversary." While the bubbly nature of this wine can certainly put an exclamation point on any celebration, sparkling wine is also an excellent complement to many dishes. In this, the last of my three-part series on matching food and wine for restaurant professionals, we'll examine the many uses for Champagne and other sparkling wines; and for dessert, a taste of dessert wines for all the sweet-tooths out there.

(NOTE: The sweetest Rieslings are also categorized as dessert wines. Refer to Part One of this series for my comments about matching Riesling with food.)

Champagne and Sparkling Wine

The difference between Champagne and sparkling wine is that only a wine produced in the Champagne region of France, where this wine has been produced for hundreds of years, can properly carry the name "Champagne." Any other wine with bubbles should be described as "sparkling wine," and this is made almost anywhere that wine is produced.

The bubbles are a result of a secondary fermentation, and the consensus among most experts is that smaller and tighter bubbles signal a high-quality sparkling wine will be. While this is often true, the bubbles are not the only indicator of quality, as some bottles can taste very yeasty - not considered a sign of quality - even though the bubbles are tiny. Like any other wine, sparkling wine should be well-balanced and have a pleasant, but not overbearing flavor.

The great thing about these wines are that they can be paired with some foods that are otherwise difficult to match with traditional reds and whites. Don't be afraid to recommend a sparkling wine to go along with crab, lobster, shrimp, scallops or any other kind of steamed or grilled shellfish. Sparkling wine is also an excellent match with sushi and other lighter Asian dishes.

Dessert Wines

Port The most popular of all dessert wines in terms of sales, Port is traditionally made in Portugal. Ports can be made from many different grape varieties, and the wine is fortified with brandy, which halts fermentation before all the natural sugar has been fermented, yielding a wine that's both sweet and strong. Like Champagne, many wines from all over the world have adopted the name Port, but the original is Portuguese.

Two common Port categories are Tawny, so called because it has faded to a light brownish-red color after long aging in barrels; and Ruby, which is aged in the bottle, not oak, and retains its deep red color. The additional oxidization that occurs in the casks usually confers on Tawny Port a pleasant nutty flavor that can be paired with nuts, cheese, dried fruit, and any desserts that contain these items. Ruby Port has a powerful red-fruit flavor, and famously matches well with rich chocolate desserts.

Banyuls Somewhat like Port but usually less sticky-sweet, Banyuls is made from the Grenache grape in the Pyrenees mountains of Southwestern France. These wines have an uncanny ability to pair well with chocolate, as if the two were made for each other.

Sherry Also a fortified wine made by an unusual process in the Jerez region of Southern Spain, Sherry often shows a distinct nutty flavor. It can range from golden yellow to dark brown in color. Sherry pairs exceptionally well with nuts and nut dishes; it also makes an excellent aperitif. I particularly enjoy drinking a glass of Sherry with a dish of cashews or pistachios.

Sauternes Produced in the Bordeaux region of France, the name "Sauternes" is controlled by law, like Champagne. It is a white dessert wine made primarily from the Semillon grape, sometimes with smaller amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle in this blend. This wine usually shows a deep golden color that darkens with age, and its sometimes intense sweetness comes from letting the ripe grapes hang on the vine in the autumn until they develop Botrytis, a beneficial fungus also called "noble rot." Botrytis prompts the grapes to shrivel into intensely sweet raisins, while also imparting a honey-like flavor. The greatest Sauternes may be aged for 100 years or more without reaching full maturity! While many of the top Sauternes, like the fabled Chateau d'Yquem, are out of the price-range of the average consumer, there are many quality lower-tier bottles that can be had for a fraction of the price. Sauternes is a great match for foie gras and pairs well with many traditional desserts from creme caramel to tarte Tatin. However, to be perfectly honest, I prefer Sauternes all by itself, so it's a good choice for those who prefer to skip a dessert in favor of a glass of excellent wine.

Late Harvest Muscat There are so many varieties of the Muscat grape, each with its own characteristics, it is impossible to lump them all in a single category. Moscatel wines from Portugal and Spain tend to have a creamy, nutty flavor, while Moscato from Italy is often light, fruity and more gently sweet. Taste and use your best judgment when deciding what to pair with a particular Muscat-based dessert wine, although a fruit-based dessert is often a safe bet.

There are many other dessert wines, but I've found that these are the ones you most commonly on wine lists in the U.S. When in doubt about a particular wine, just match the characteristics of the wine with the characteristics of a dish on the menu. For example, if a dessert wine has a rich berry flavor, it should go well with a raspberry or blackberry dessert.

We've come to the end of this three-part series exploring the most common grapes and how to match them with food. As mentioned previously, these are broad generalizations and may not be appropriate for a particular bottle, so always try to taste a wine before recommending to make sure you're not misleading a guest. If you have any questions about a particular wine, or have general comments about this article, feel free to email me at

Aug. 21, 2006

Jorge Eduardo Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training.
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