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Brandon Lapides is winemaker at Armida Winery in the Russian River Valley wine region.
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Ask the Winemaker
What is ML Fermentation, Malolactic Fermentation, Secondary Fermentation?
Why do wines get better with age?
How do you pair wines with dessert?
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 1-2
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 3-4
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 5-7
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 - Finale
What’s so special about Syrah?
Harvest 2009, First Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Second Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Third Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Fourth Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Final Interview with Winemaker B
How do you pair wines with dessert?
Dear Winemaker B,

I am having a dinner party for 10 people and I have all of my wines paired with the courses that I am planning, except dessert. What dessert wine should I buy and what should I pair it with?

Debbie’s Dessert
Phoenix, AZ

Dear Debbie,

Great question! There are many different choices that can be made when selecting a wine to pair with a dessert. I like to start with the simple rule of “red wines with dark foods and white wines with lighter colored fare.” Red wines paired with chocolate and white wines with fruits, cheeses and pies. There are so many different versions of after dinner drinks that I will only mention the types that I have personally tried, but feel free to explore new options.

Option #1: Port
Port is my favorite after-dinner drink: it can stand alone, or be paired with a cigar or dessert. Port’s history begins with the need for the British Empire to have wine imported. Merchants realized that the wine was able to last longer on the boats if there was a higher level of tannins and alcohol (see my previous article on aging). The wine is produced the same way that normal red wine is made, except that it is fortified. Fortification is the process of adding higher proof alcohol to the wine. Before the wine finishes it fermentation, brandy is added until the total concentration of alcohol in the wine is about 20%. This high level of alcohol prohibits the yeast from fermenting any more sugar and the wine is left with sweetness, or residual sugar (RS for Wine Geeks).

Then, based on the winemakers decisions, the wine is segregated into 3 different categories; Ruby, Tawny and Vintage. Ruby port sees very little barrel aging and is bottled quickly to preserve the youthful fruitiness of the wine. Tawny is a term used to describe extended barrel aging. Tawny Ports are always a mix of vintages and are usually bottled as a 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old Tawny. If you buy a 20 year old Tawny that means that every drop in that bottle has been aged in barrels for at least 20 years. This style imparts smokier, vanilla characteristics. A vintage port is almost a mix between the two other styles. In a great vintage, the port from that year will be deemed vintage port. The wine is aged for about two years in oak, but then is bottled early. The idea is that the vintage port will be aged for a long time in the bottle.
I personally love Tawny ports and recommend 20 years old as a nice compromise between taste and price. I would pair a tawny port with flour-less chocolate cake served with a blackberry puree. The port will also pair perfectly with a crème-brule because the burnt sugar flavors are very similar to the characteristics of the port. For a simpler dessert pair a Ruby Port with fresh strawberries or cherries. The finger fruits are easy to prepare and can be easily made “gourmet” by drizzling some chocolate (dark for me, please) over the fruit.

Option #2: Late-Harvest Wines
These wines are a bit different than Port, but can be used interchangeably when pairing with desserts. Late-harvest (LH) wines are self-described on the label; the grapes for the wine are harvested later than normal grapes. The grapes will have higher levels of sugar and less acid than the same grapes harvested earlier. Usually the winegrower will have to hang the fruit for 1 month longer for late harvest wines. This can cause some difficulties, as the weather has a huge impact the longer the grapes are on the vine.

The LH grapes are fermented the same way that table wine is made. There is so much sugar in the grapes that the yeast will ferment until the alcohol content that they produced will kill the yeast. When the yeast die the wine is left sweet, because the yeast couldn’t eat all the sugar. You can make a LH wine with any grape variety, white or red. My favorites include LH wines made from California Zinfandel and Viognier. Viognier is perfect to pair with dried apricots. Also, it’s fantastic to just pour over vanilla ice cream or sorbet. Zinfandel is great to pair with chocolate, the darker the better.

Debbie, I could keep going on forever because every different culture that makes wine also makes its own unique dessert wines. When you have a chance try some of these wines: Trokenbearnaulessen (TBA) from Germany, Sauternes from France, Sherries from Spain, Royal Tokai from Hungary and Icewines from Canada.

Good luck with your dinner,
Winemaker B
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