Food and wine have been paired for centuries, most likely because people believe some combinations just taste better when they are together than when served alone. Traditional rules of pairing are not often followed for modern meals, partially because people have found they prefer to rely on their individual tastes to decide which combinations taste the best. Dessert wines, however, are almost always served with fruit or bakery sweets, although they are sometimes enjoyed alone after the meal. True appreciation of that type of wine, though, begins with knowing what sets them apart from other types.

Although many vintners will disagree, the creation of a fine vintage does not necessarily begin in the vineyard. Granted, there are a few varieties that are known for being especially sweet, but many of them require additional flavorings to stave off blandness. The sweetness of grapes can even be enhanced by harvesting them later or by exposing them to more sunlight, both of which can be difficult to control. As a result, many dessert wines are not a result of the grape growing process, but of the amount of sugar added before or after fermentation. In Germany, for example, sugar is increased by adding grape juice after fermentation, which has the side effect of lowering the alcohol content. Other techniques for increasing sweetness include using grapes that have a specific type of mold on them, freezing out some of the water, or drying the grapes before fermentation.

Despite being a combination of grape variety, alcohol content, color and flavor, the classification of wines and spirits varies greatly according to local laws. For example, dessert wines in the U.S. have more than 14% alcohol and include those that have been fortified with alcohol, while the same category in the UK includes any non-fortified sweet wine served with a meal. The only point of agreement on the category seems to be the sweetness, with these wines having the highest sugar content.

The correct way to choose wine and food pairings tends to vary according to the expert offering the advice. Some follow the traditional rules of pairing different types of foods with specific wines, while others prefer to make the pairings according to individual tastes. The point of agreement, however, is dessert wines. Without question, they are served after a meal, alone or with fruit or bakery treats. In addition, tasting different types and figuring out what suits your particular tastes and dessert selection is the best way to decide on a pairing.

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