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Wine Pairing Disasters: Cupcake Edition

cupcake_pajamas”Gourmet” cupcakes took over America a couple of years ago. Cupcake shops popped up all over. You could get cupcakes delivered to your home while watching cupcake-themed reality shows in your cupcake-motif pajamas. Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess I suppose.

Food and wine pairing is also somewhat out of hand. Matching food and wine perfectly can elevate a meal. It might change the way you look at both the food and the wine. Perfect pairings are rare though, and often in the mouth of the beholder. Despite the hype, the important thing is simply ensuring that the food does not decrease your enjoyment of the wine, or vice versa. Unfortunately, there are some combinations of food and wine that are almost certain to fail.

Cupcakes are, technically, food. As such, they can be “paired.” That does not make it a good idea. Bikinis are outdoor clothing. Deep-frying turkeys is an outdoor activity. But deep-frying a turkey while wearing nothing but a fetching two-piece is a poor idea. So, too, cupcakes and wine.

I bring this up because, just this weekend, I walked into a winery tasting room that was co-located with a boutique cupcake vendor. The recommendation was to get a sampler of tiny cupcakes to taste with specific wines. But the wines were table wines, not dessert wines. Cringe.

One of the principle rules of food and wine pairing is that a wine should be at least as sweet as the food with which it is paired. This is particularly true when it comes to desserts. If the wine is less sweet, its complex, fruity flavors will be flattened by the sugary bulldozer on your plate. Depending on the wine, it may taste sour, bitter or simply dull and devoid of fruit.

Now you might say, “That’s okay. I like wines with a bit of sweetness.” Regrettably, “a bit of sweetness” isn’t enough. To understand why, let’s look at the sugar content of two different cupcakes.

Paula Deen has a recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes on Mmmmm. Red Velvet! The sugar content is terrifying though, 31 grams per cupcake1. That’s more than you’d find in a 12oz can of Coke or Pepsi (27 grams). To approach the tooth-aching sweetness of Deen’s cupcake with wine, you need a full-on, super-sweet dessert wine such as a Pedro Ximenez (212+ grams/liter) from Spain or Sélection de Grains Nobles (256+ g/l) from France.

Elizabeth Faulkner's Pumkin Cupcake. Photo: c3lcius_bb / Flickr

Our second cupcake recipe is much less sweet than Deen’s, but it’s still a wine killer. Elizabeth Faulkner, formerly of Citizen Cake (and Citizen Cupcake), makes Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting that total 22 grams of sugar per serving2. To match these cupcakes’ sweetness with wine, you’ll want a Dulce Sherry (160+ g/l) or Tokaji Aszu-Eszencia (180 g/l) from Hungary.

You can certainly pair cupcakes with dessert wines such as those I suggest above. However, those wines are so sweet in and of themselves that most people choose to drink them as, rather than with, dessert.

When we were kids, we ate cake with a glass of cold milk. Milk is creamy, low in acidity and the cold temperature reduced our mouths' sensitivty to sugar. And milk doesn't have wine's complex range of flavors, nor does it cost $20/gallon. The milk was perfect, gently coating our little mouths and tempering the cake's sweetness. Sometimes kids know best.


1One-and-a-half cups of granulated sugar for 24 cupcakes, plus 4 cups of confectioner’s sugar for the frosting.
2One cup each of brown sugar and granulated sugar, plus 1 cup of powdered sugar for the frosting.

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This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Cupcake Pajamas by PJ Salvage. All rights reserved.