Bourbon balls at parties, pie after holiday meals, candy in Christmas stockings: Dessert is everywhere during the holidays. In this season of giving and kindness, the first kindness you can give your body is a break from all that sugar, which is punishment wrapped as pleasure.
But I like dessert, you protest. Fine. Drink it instead.
Our mania for, say, chocolate is as narrow-minded as our prejudice against dessert wines, which can be far more complex and satisfying than any solid dessert—and they're fat-free, too. (A glass of port has about 160 calories.)
The first act on dessert wine's behalf is to liberate it from needless pairings. Restaurants are largely to blame for this dull tradition. The pouring of sugar over sugar may seem appropriate, but on the palate it often detracts from both the dessert and the wine. The point of dessert is not saturation and stuffing. It's a grace note meant to send a decisive psychobiological cue from the taste buds to the brain: Mealtime is over. You need a little sugar, not a lot.
Dessert wine pairings are best as studies in contrast, like the venerable tradition of vintage port with walnuts or Stilton cheese (and you can satisfy your appetite with far less cheese or nuts than with a yacht-sized hunk of cake).
Full-flavored cheese does not tend to go well with most dry wine (if that's what you're drinking, try milder, younger cheeses, such as the famous pairing of chèvre with Sancerre), and some combinations can be quite revolting. Strong cheese set against powerful, sweet wine, however, can illuminate both, and these intense flavors belong after dinner, when the palate is fatigued and you're splayed out on the sofa watching bowl games.
The best way, though, is more precise and purer than any pairing: Eat dessert or drink it—not both. There is exceptional quality and value in dessert wine, and tremendous variety, too. There are pale blonde ones that smell like flower blossoms and taste like springtime honey. There are golden ones that go down like pure, liquid fruit nectar: pears, apricots, peaches. There are burnished, amber wines redolent of nuts, caramel and candied citrus peel. There is port, too, in all its richness and power. With a glass of the aristocratic stuff in one hand and a brass nutcracker in the other, you'll feel like a fat cat.
WINE WITH SOUL: How about some history in a glass? Madeira is virtually ignored today, but it's intimately linked to our country's past. The fortified wine was a significant part of Atlantic trade during the Age of Exploration—the Portuguese island where it's made was an important maritime stopover—and it is lodged in our national foundation. The Founding Fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with a glass of Madeira. At one point, young America was drinking a quarter of Madeira's annual wine production. (See David Hancock's Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste for much more.)
Madeira, like America, was discovered accidentally. Originally made as a fortified dry wine, it cooked and oxidized in casks on long sea voyages. That turned out to improve it, so Madeirans started heating and treating the wine on purpose. The transformative result broadens its lifespan as well as its flavor. It's among the longest-lived wines, with 100 years no big deal for the best Madeiras.
Numerous Christmases ago, I gave my sister a bottle of D'Oliveira 1968 Bual Madeira, which you could then buy locally, in case she, a collector of vintage treasures, stuck it on a windowsill or in storage for years.
Years went by, and I impulsively opened the wine after her birthday dinner last winter. Sorry, sis, but it was one of the best wines I've ever had. I won't report any dutiful, buzz-killing "tasting notes" except to say that it had, as Madeira (and all good dessert wines) should, a pronounced acidity that cut the sweetness and made you want more, more, more.
No surprise, then, that although you can re-cork Madeira after opening a bottle and it will keep for quite some time, this one had no chance—we drained it by midnight. This same wine is still available by mail order, and I might have to give my sister a replacement this Christmas so we can drink it years from now. I like to think that the longer you hold on to a gift, the longer it keeps on giving.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pour some sugar on me."