The list of traditional holiday cookies is long. But what should you sip alongside them? If pairing cookies with sweet wine feels like a recipe for sugar overkill, prepare to think again. There is a dessert wine pairing that will work for you. Here’s a primer, just in time for the holidays.
Gingerbread Cookies and Marsala
These spiced cookies require a wine with backbone and strength. Marsala, a fortified wine from Sicily, has both the punch of alcohol and secondary oxidative notes of roasted nuts, caramel and brown sugar that bring out the molasses in these holiday treats. Marsala can range from golden to deep brown in color, and its sugar content goes from secco to dolce. But its depth and breadth make it a smart choice alongside a cookie that treads the line between sweet and savory.
Other cookies to pair with Marsala: snickerdoodles, speculoos
Sugar Cookies and Ice Wine
Because of their sweetness, sugar cookies can easily railroad a wine that’s too dry or delicate. Ice wine is produced from grapes picked once they’ve frozen on the vine. When pressed, the juice, separated from the water in the grapes, is almost like nectar. The result is a clear, sweet, honeyed wine that complements the buttery, sugary notes of these holiday standard-bearers.
Other cookies to pair with ice wine: shortbread, spritz cookies
Chocolate Crinkle Cookies and Banyuls
Banyuls, the Grenache-based dessert wine that hails from the Languedoc-Roussillon region in Southern France, is made in a method similar to Port, with alcohol added to arrest fermentation and preserve sugar content. The result is a sweet, spicy red wine with residual sugar and a higher alcohol content than traditional red wine. With notes of chocolate and rich berries on the nose and palate, this wine is a natural partner for chocolate cookies.
Other cookies to pair with Banyuls: chocolate chip cookies, rocky road fudge
Rainbow Cookies and Tawny Port
Popular in Jewish and Italian homes around the holidays, the rainbow cookie’s predominant flavor is almond, amplified by apricot and raspberry jams. It requires a dessert wine with both fruity and nutty notes. Tawny Port, which spends time in wooden barrels that expose it to oxidation, is a rust-colored dessert wine with nutty, toasty flavors and jammy qualities suggestive of cooked red fruits. Tawny Port designates its age (and, therefore, time spent in oak) on the bottle. To pair, seek a younger tawny, 10 to 20 years old.
Other cookies to pair with tawny Port: peanut butter blossoms, M&M cookies
Rugelach and Rutherglen Muscat
Straight from the Jewish kitchen comes this croissant-like cookie, a crescent of pastry filled traditionally with raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, fruit preserves or poppy seeds. The dessert can be nutty, spiced and sweet. Enter Rutherglen Muscat, an Australian dessert wine made from Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge. Grapes are harvested late, left to dry on the vine to concentrate sugar, then pressed, fermented, fortified and aged in oak. The result is a brown-hued wine with aromas of caramelized sugar that brings forth the spice, nuts and jam from rugelach.
Other cookies to pair with Rutherglen Muscat: oatmeal raisin cookies, coconut macaroons
Mexican Wedding Cookies and Vin Santo
These simple sugar, butter and almond cookies resemble fluffy little pillows, but they pack a big punch. Tuscany’s Vin Santo, made with harvested grapes dried on straw mats until their sugars concentrate, is an apt pairing. Vin Santo can range in sugar content from dry to sweet, but it always offers expressions of spice and toasted nuts. Look for wines with amabile on the label, which indicates the wine is semi-sweet.
Other cookies to pair with Vin Santo: biscotti, palmiers
Peppermint Meltaways and Sauternes
Peppermint is notoriously difficult to pair and can derail even the best wines. Delicate flavors won’t withstand its punch. As a result, look to France’s most famous dessert wine, Sauternes. It’s produced from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, which all remain on the vine until they have been affected by Botrytis cinerea. This golden nectar is sweet, though not cloying due to ample acidity, which allows the mint to shine. Sauternes ranges broadly in quality and price, and the most expensive bottles can fetch thousands of dollars. But there are plenty of fine entry-level options that shouldn’t deplete your bank account.
Other cookies to pair with Sauternes: peppermint meringues, madeleines
Jam Thumbprint Cookies and Brachetto d’Acqui
Brachetto d’Acqui, the light, fizzy, fuchsia dessert wine from Northern Italy, is a fun and low-alcohol alternative to fortified wine. Its fresh berry notes include strawberry and raspberry, which are an obvious match for jam thumbprint cookies. The light, joyful cookie requires an equally playful and exuberant wine. In this case, a frizzante or spumante Brachetto delivers.
Other cookies to pair with Brachetto d’Acqui: linzer tarts, kolache
Molasses Drops and Madeira
A fortified wine that hails from Portugal’s island of Madeira, off the Moroccan coast, Madeira is produced in a unique manner. Wine is exposed to oxygen and heat, which cause it to develop secondary characteristics like walnut, hazelnut and burnt sugar flavors. These match well with molasses drops. Madeira ranges in sweetness, from off-dry to very sweet. With this cookie, you’d be well served to choose a version with less sugar content, like those made from Sercial or Verdelho grapes.
Other cookies to pair with Madeira: pecan sandies, whoopie pies
Rum Balls and Pedro Ximénez Sherry
Few desserts are as iconic during the holidays as the rum ball, a cookie made from crushed nuts, confectioner’s sugar and, of course, rum. In Spain, the Pedro Ximénez grape, or PX, is used to produce an unctuous, dark and sweet style of Sherry. Grapes are first dried in the sun, which concentrates their sugars. The resulting syrupy, nearly black juice yields a wine that reflects that process. The style is similar, in some ways, to a dark rum, where notes of molasses and dark fruit dominate. It makes sense to pair this wine with a dessert that bears rum’s name.
Other cookies to pair with Pedro Ximénez Sherry: gingersnaps, brown butter-toffee cookies