Before Karen Van Guilder Little worked up to her current position as a sommelier, she was hosting dinner parties and catering events to learn all that she could about food and wine. A decade later, Little left her career in music to pursue this passion full-time, and now she’s pouring bottles and working as the general manager of Josephine—one of Nashville’s most popular restaurants.
In other words, Little’s professional and personal background makes it easy for us to trust her opinion on the perfect sweet red wine. “If I am reaching for a sweet red, I am usually looking for a really sweet wine—not just a dry wine with lots of fruit flavor,” she says. “I want something with some residual sugar in it.”
She notes that sweet red wines are best with appetizers and desserts—like chocolate, dried fruits, and stinky and hard cheeses—and they could also pair well with foie gras. In fact, if you’d like to serve this bottle for the main course, that’s doable, too. “Some of them can pair very well with game birds,” she notes. “Something like a duck with a cherry sauce.”
Given its unexpected versatility, this wine might be exactly what your next special event needs. We asked Little to share the five best sweet red wines on her roster so that you can create an applause-worthy menu with them in mind. Who knows? You might end up following in Little’s footsteps when you’re through.
Banfi Brachetto d'Acqui
“Brachetto is the grape, and Brachetto d’Acqui is the region in northern Italy where it’s from,” she says. “It’s a sparkling sweet red wine that is my hands-down favorite. I love it as dessert on its own or with a chocolate and strawberry dessert.”
Buglioni Recioto della Valpolicella
“Recioto is a sweet, unfortified wine with dense, chewy flavors,” Little continues. “It’s made in northern Italy, in the area around Verona. The grapes are picked and then dried for more than 100 days to produce intense, dried fruit flavors. It’s great with dark chocolate or a dessert like Black Forest cake with cherries.”
Taylor Fladgate 20-Year Tawny Port
“Ports are fortified red wines or wines that have a neutral spirit added to them. It makes them higher in alcohol and sometimes high in sugar,” explains Van Guilder Little. “This is another wine that I drink as a stand-alone dessert, but it’s also good with a nut-based dessert, chocolate, or a good hard cheese like Parmesan.”
Curatoria Emiliana Lambrusco
“This is an inexpensive, lightly sweet, lowish-alcohol fizzy red from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy,” she says. "It’s great with pizza.”
Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine
“This is a wine made from Cabernet Franc grapes that are harvested after they have frozen on the vine,” Little notes. “It’s full of bright red fruit aromas and flavors and is, once again, great with chocolate and berry desserts—we have a theme here!”