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Wine with food:
The problem with desserts
I have a bit of a problem with desserts -- or 'puddings' as we used to call them when I was a kid. It's not that I don't enjoy them; rather, I find it difficult to match wines with them.

Consider the typical dinner party. You kick off with chat and a glass of bubbly, or maybe one of the dinner wines. Then it's into the dining room for some serious food. We'll often have a wine chosen to match the starter, and one chosen to match the main course -- at the very least there'll be a white and a red. For dinner parties these are usually posh wines, unless we have some of our more 'thirsty' friends coming round who we know are more interested in quantity than quality -- we try to cater for all palates! All's fine so far, but then (from a wine perspective) it all goes horribly wrong. Out comes the pudding.

Usually at this stage I'm still enjoying my posh dinner party red, swirling it round in my glass, appreciating it's finer nuances -- you get the picture. (Unless we have the 'thirsty' friends round, in which case we're usually onto our 18th bottle by now and have completely forgotten about the dessert.) What do I do? If I start on the pudding, it will kill my enjoyment of the wine. I'm quite happy to carry on with my wine, and I've often had enough to eat by this stage.

Is the solution to serve a separate dessert wine with the pudding? I have some problems with this. First, most of our guests have had enough to drink by this stage, and those that haven't are usually driving: neither group is terribly enthusiastic about opening more wine (again, the exception is out 'thirsty' friends, but by now none of us can operate a corkscrew, so more wine isn't an option!). Second, few 'dessert' wines make good matches with puddings. It's a total waste to serve expensive, complex noble-rotten Sauternes, Coteaux du Layon or Trockenbeerenauslese with puddings. Even less-expensive examples of botrytised new world dessert wines are overwhelmed when faced with a rich, sweet pudding.

However, you could deliberately choose a pudding that is dessert wine friendly. Good examples might include fruit tarts, or indeed any dish with predominantly fruit-like flavours. These usually have restrained sweetness and balancing acidity from the fruit, and would match well with a Muscat-based dessert wine such as a Beaumes-de-Venise. Relatively inexpensive and with clean, pure fruit flavours, Muscat wines are a better bet for dessert matching than more pricey and complex botrytised sweeties. It's my opinon that chocolate doesn't match well with any wines (although some wine writers are under the impression that Banyuls does), and desserts with lots of cream can be difficult to pair well with wine. Another option would be to leave a larger gap between the main courses and the pudding: this would give people a chance to finish their dinner wines at leisure, avoiding the awkward clash. A final and more drastic action might be to do away with dessert altogether if you are serious about the wines.

Whatever option you take, my advice would be to save your expensive Sauternes, Bonnezeux and Trockenbeerenausleses for quiet contemplation on their own. It seems a shame to sacrifice them at the end of a meal when people have already had a lot to drink, and when they make rather poor matches for most puddings.

Jargon busting: what is Botrytis (noble rot)?
It's a fungus that infects grapes, causing them to rot, and it goes under the scientific name of Botrytis cinerea. If it attacks unripe or damaged grapes, it is a disaster. But this particular cloud has a silver lining. In certain wine regions, notably Sauternes in Bordeaux, Vouvray, Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon of the Loire, Tokay in Hungary and various regions of Germany, Botrytis attacks ripe, healthy white grapes, causing them to shrivel. (I have had a botrytised red wine before, but these are unusual and rare.) These disgusting, mouldy looking grapes yield small quantities of extremely concentrated juice that is then used to make sublime sweet white wines of great complexity and longevity. This benevolent form of Botrytis is also known as noble rot in English, pourriture noble in French and Edelfäule in German. What sort of flavours should you expect in a botrytized wine? There is often the tang of thick-cut marmalade, together with apricot-like flavours. The texture will be rich and viscous, and although the wine will be sweet, in good examples there will also be plenty of acidity to give balance. Because of the risk associated with producing these wines and the low yields involved, these wines will be expensive, but the Australians are now producing delicious, affordable botrytized wines from grapes that have artificially been seeded with fungal spores. Innovative, eh?

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