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Celebrate Day of the Dead With Dessert Wines

Halloween is full of treats, but Mexico's biggest holiday can also be sweet

Posted: October 27, 2006

A few years ago, Wine Spectator Online held a tasting to determine which morsels from a child's typical trick-or-treat bag would pair best with which wines. We now know that those adults determined to celebrate Halloween can enjoy a Chilean Chardonnay with a Mars bar, for example, or a 10-year-old NV Madeira with a Snickers, so this year we've decided to pair sweet wines with more grown-up dessert fare than is typically associated with this time of year. For inspiration, we looked south of the border to Mexico, and Day of the Dead, which is celebrated the first two days of November.

Day of the Dead is an opportunity "to reflect on all of your ancestors and to celebrate their contributions to life...in some ways, you're bringing back their spirit to be part of your family life," says Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who has given scores of Americans an authentic taste of Mexico through his restaurants, books and television show. As he describes, each family erects an altar, on which they place flowers, religious amulets and portions of the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased, along with some traditional dishes.

Mexican hot chocolate is so rich and concentrated as to almost be a dessert in liquid form.  
"In places like Oaxaca, you'll go to someone's house during this period and bring them a gift of chocolate to put on their altar. Chocolate is a major part of Day of the Dead," he explained, adding that it's consumed as a hot beverage, flavored with sugar, cinnamon and ground almonds. Chocolate has a natural affinity for Port, and while you may think it strange to pair a beverage with a beverage, remember that Mexican hot chocolate is so rich and concentrated as to almost be a dessert in liquid form.

Pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread, is another food that's typical of the holiday. The Mexican cousin of brioche, it is typically studded with anise seeds, sweetened with a sugar glaze and topped with dough shaped like crossbones, although the bread's specific shape, richness and garnish varies from region to region. A glass of Moscato makes an ideal accompaniment to pan de muerto.

Calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, is yet another sweet offering found on Day of the Dead altars and tables. "If you go into a market in Mexico at this time of the year, you'll find it already prepared, being sold alongside the fruits and vegetables," said Bayless. "It will still have the rind on it, and you can just chew it off, the way you would eat a piece of watermelon." The dark caramelized flavors and spicy notes of this recipe make it a good match with a Sauternes.

Calabaza en Tacha With Vanilla Ice Cream

Adapted from Rick Bayless

3 1/2 large cones piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar from Mexico), or 5 cups dark brown sugar
5 cups water
6 cinnamon sticks
10 whole cloves
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons grated lime zest
Pinch of salt
1 4-pound zucca, kabocha or other high-quality pumpkin, seeded, scraped and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 quart vanilla ice cream

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine piloncillo or brown sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, orange and lime zests and salt. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar has dissolved. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the pumpkin pieces. Return to a simmer, cover and let cook 90 minutes to two hours, until pulp is soft and golden brown. Remove the pan from the heat and let the pumpkin cool in the cooking liquid. Once it has cooled, separate the pumpkin from the syrup, reserving separately. Using a paring knife, remove and discard the pumpkin rind, and transfer the pulp to a blender or food processor. Puree the pumpkin until smooth, adjusting the consistency as desired with the reserved cooking syrup.

Soften the ice cream in the microwave on high for 20 seconds, or let it sit at room temperature until softened. Using a spatula, fold the pumpkin puree into the ice cream, drizzling to create a "swirl" effect. If necessary, return the ice cream to the freezer to regain desired firmness before serving. Serves 8.

Suggested Wine Matches


Wine Score Price
QUINTA DE RORIZ Vintage Port 2003 97 $60
Aromas of licorice, blackberries and flowers follow through to a full-bodied palate, with light sweetness and an incredible core of gorgeous raspberry fruit. Long finish. Best after 2014. 1,500 cases made. —J.S.
CROFT Vintage Port 2003 96 $70
Gorgeous aromas of blueberries and dried flowers follow through to a sweet, full-bodied palate. Velvety and round, with lovely fruit. Long finish. Best after 2015. 6,500 cases made. —J.S.
BARROS Vintage Port 2003 88 $35
Grapey on the nose, with black pepper and berry undertones. Medium- to full-bodied, with fine tannins and a medium fruity finish. Balanced and delicate. Best after 2010. 1,000 cases made. —J.S.


Wine Score Price
Very, very intense aromas of dried apricot and lemon. Honey, syrup and Golden Delicious. Full-bodied, viscous and very sweet. Pour it on pancakes. Love it. And drink it. Who can wait? Best after 2010. 6,250 cases made. —J.S.
CHÂTEAU LA TOUR BLANCHE Sauternes 2003 97 $40 / 375ml
Dark gold in color already, with intense aromas of dried apricots, citrus, honey and maple syrup with lots of spice. Full-bodied, with lovely sweetness and a long, creamy peach tart, tobacco, honey aftertaste. This is pure botrytis. Incredible finish. Best after 2010. 2,915 cases made. —J.S.
CHÂTEAU GUIRAUD Sauternes 2003 95 $45
This is very sweet and rich on the nose, with toffee, honey and spices. Full-bodied, and thick honey. Spice, dried apricot and syrup flavors. Lasts for minutes on the palate. Big botrytis bomb. Love it. Best after 2010. 8,000 cases made. —J.S.
CHÂTEAU SUDUIRAUT Sauternes 2003 93 $55
Intense aromas of pecan pie, dried apricot, apples and syrup. Full-bodied, medium-sweet, with a dense mouthfeel of very ripe fruit and a long, powerful and spicy aftertaste. Very, very impressive. Best after 2010. 6,500 cases made. —J.S.
Aromas of caramel, honey and lemons follow through to a full-bodied palate, with lots of tangy acidity and a spicy, flavorful finish. Best after 2009. —J.S.


Wine Score Price
CERETTO Moscato d'Asti Vignaioli di S. Stefano 2004 87 $20
Well-balanced, with a fresh apple, floral and mineral nose. Medium-bodied, with a subtle froth and a clean lemon and mineral finish. Drink now. 15,000 cases made.
LA SPINETTA Moscato d'Asti Bricco Quaglia 2004 87 $18
Subtle aromas of pineapple, lemon and peach follow through to a medium-bodied palate. Light and medium-sweet, with a bright finish. Delicious. Drink now. 9,165 cases made. —J.S.
ST. SUPÉRY Moscato California 2004 87 $20
Delicately sweet and loaded with spice, with an underlying acidity that keeps it light on its feet. Shows zesty apricot and creamy nectarine aromas and flavors. Enjoy it with a bowl of fresh berries and melon. Drink now. 7,814 cases made.

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