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Turn Up the Sweet for Summer Desserts

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; F05

We'd bet that some of the best wine and food pairings of your life -- perhaps port with Stilton cheese, or Sauternes with foie gras -- have sweet wines to thank for their role in elevating the match.

Sweet wines perform magic with desserts, too, of course. Summer desserts celebrating sweet-tart berries, from blueberry sorbets to strawberry shortcake, harmonize with wines featuring similar flavors.

Fresh strawberries and sweeter champagnes are a timeless pairing. Raspberry-almond cake brings out the luscious berry notes in port, as it did with the 2000 Osborne Late Bottled Vintage Porto we opened the other night.

The single most dessert-friendly wine around is arguably Moscato d'Asti, and it's especially easy to taste why alongside berry desserts. Get a bottle of this slightly sweet, semi-sparkling, low-alcohol wine now to chill and enjoy with the first berry desserts of the season, and we can virtually guarantee you'll be buying it all summer long -- as you should, because this is also a wine you'll want to drink fresh.

Some of the better makers of Moscato d'Asti to keep an eye out for include Bera, Caudrina, Saracco and La Spinetta. However, we've yet to encounter one we didn't enjoy. Case in point: our first sip the other night of Nivole Michele Chiarlo , which is somewhat drier than others we've tasted. It reached its apex when paired with Andrew's homemade strawberry shortcake. The secret? He drizzled a tablespoon of the wine on the berries and then added a dash to the fresh whipped cream, so that the wine in the dessert served as a bridge to the wine in the glass, which lifted the flavors of both.

With shortcake, we've also enjoyed sweet Vouvray -- but the creamier the berry dessert, the more likely we are to turn to a Sauternes. One of the most ethereal pairings we've ever tasted was during a summer visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where friends treated us all to a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem, one of the world's great Sauternes, to accompany berry crepes served with a creamy coconut tapioca. Sauternes exalts tropical flavors.

Mary Cech and Jennie Schacht, authors of "The Wine Lover's Dessert Cookbook" (Chronicle Books, 2005), underscore the important point that because many sweet wines are produced in such small quantities, their availability is limited.

"Because specific brands can be so hard to find, it's best to ask trusted wine retailers for recommendations for the style you're seeking among those they carry," Cech told us. Schacht added: "As a general rule, the darker the berry, the darker the wine you'll want to pair with it." A few examples:

· Strawberries: demi-sec champagne, muscat de Rivesaltes.

· Raspberries: Sauternes, sparkling wine, sweet Vouvray.

· Blueberries: Brachetto d'Acqui, Graham's Six Grapes Port.

· Blackberries: black muscat, Brachetto d'Acqui.

Dominique and Cindy Duby, Vancouver-based husband-and-wife patissiers, chocolatiers and authors of "Wild Sweets: Exotic Dessert and Wine Pairings" (Whitecap, 2006) recommend taking texture into consideration, too.

For lighter desserts such as fruit soups, turn to a sweet sparkling wine such as Moscato d'Asti, Asti (the fully sparkling wine formerly known as Asti Spumante) or Cremant. The Dubys praised Inniskillin's and Jackson Triggs' sparkling ice wines from Canada as worth the splurge.

For cake-style desserts such as strawberry shortcake or custardy cakes, the Dubys recommend an ice wine such as those produced by Canada's Inniskillin. "A late-harvest wine or Tokaji would work, too," Cindy Duby said. They both enjoy Sumac Ridge Pinot Blanc Icewine, she said.

"For berry pies and other crusted desserts such as cobblers or crumbles, we suggest wines with citrus notes, such as a French Sauternes, or a late-harvest or botrytis-affected chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or chenin blanc," Dominique Duby added.

Given all the choices available, it's helpful to have a couple of go-to wines for pairing with berry desserts. We were happy to learn recently that Mark Kibbe, executive manager of the historic 1789 restaurant in Georgetown, shares two of ours.

With lighter desserts or those made with strawberries, Kibbe turns to Braida Brachetto d'Acqui , a very light, slightly effervescent red wine that he points out has strawberry notes. Unlike Moscato d'Asti, Brachetto d'Acqui even pairs well with dark chocolate desserts. With heavier desserts or those featuring heavier berry sauces, Kibbe recommends Quady Elysium , a black muscat from California that, while heavier, is still refreshing.

And if you're having friends to dinner who have always "been there, done that," just pour them a champagne flute of chilled Poochi- Poochi sparkling sake, which has a citrusy pear creaminess that pairs beautifully with berry sorbets. Its bubbles make it as much fun to drink as it will be to ask them to guess what it is.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.