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The One Rule for Pairing Wine with Ice Cream & Other Desserts

At Theorem, we’ve always encouraged our readers and members to enjoy wine in new ways and experiment with pairings and tastings. We believe that your enjoyment of wine (and life) expands as you explore what you enjoy; it doesn’t come from “listening to the experts,” but from taking expertise and running with it in a new direction.

That said, there are certain truths when it comes to wine (and we’re big on truth and wine). Studies show that letting yourself be guided by general rules helps you learn faster when you’re trying something new. And when it comes to dessert, wine connoisseurs are going through a period of rethinking how to pair wine with sweet courses.

But underneath all the experimentation, there’s a rule that guides sommeliers, chefs, and wine lovers alike:

The wine must be sweeter than the dessert.

Why Does Wine Need to Be Sweeter Than Dessert?

Pairings can both contrast and complement flavors that wine and food have in common. A dark, full-bodied red wine works with red meat because the tannin contrasts with the fatty richness of the protein. At the same time, the savory notes in a red wine complement the umami flavor of a well-seasoned steak or lamb dish. The food will emphasize flavors in the wine you might not otherwise have noticed.

However, it can be tricky to pair wine and ice cream or desserts. When you pair a dry wine with a sweet dish, what happens is the non-sweet flavors of the wine come forward: the bitterness and astringency. In short, a poor tasting experience. Additionally, those notes in the wine may make a sweet dessert almost unpalatable by comparison. The only exception to this are fruit-forward wines, whose fruity notes can pair with sweet dishes.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to pair wine with dessert. Instead, sweet wines give you a chance to experiment with moderately sweet desserts, or even desserts that blur the boundary between savory and sweet.

Tips for Pairing Wine & Ice Cream

Pairing wine with ice cream seems unorthodox, but there’s a long history of pairing wine with dairy or fat—after all, wine and cheese have been paired together for as long as we’ve been making both. Ice cream is simply another cream dish. What may make it strange is that wine is served with food that is at least room temperature; cold temperatures can numb the palate and mute flavor.

Here are some tips for pairing ice cream and wine:

  • Try moderately sweet ice creams: Pistachio, high-quality vanilla, dark chocolate, lavender, honey, or mint are all light on sweetness but big on complex aromas and floral notes. That makes them ideal for pairing with a sweet wine.
  • Let the ice cream sit for a minute: Given that cold temperatures can numb the palate, pairing pioneers recommend letting the ice cream sit on the counter for a few minutes before serving. The ice cream should be cold, but not frozen.
  • Wait a few seconds between bites: Big Macs & Burgundy authors Vanessa Price and Adam Laukhuf recommend waiting seven seconds between bites of ice cream and sips of wine. This allows the flavors of both to warm up in your mouth.
  • Avoid wines with lots of tannin: Tannin pairs with fatty proteins, but sweet creams end up overemphasizing tannin’s bitterness. Additionally, the sugar in the ice cream can overpower a dry wine. Go with low-tannin wines for your dessert course.

Like we say: let these guidelines give you direction, but don’t let them dictate what you try. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are pairings no one has tried waiting to be discovered. No matter what you try, allow yourself to be surprised. Someday, you will be!