But many people tend to skirt the dessert wine shelf, with its unfamiliar names and grape varieties.
"It's not chardonnay. It's not pinot noir. It's not cab. Purchasing them is more of a leap of faith," says wine expert Karen MacNeil, author of "The Wine Bible."
In truth, there's nothing to worry about, says MacNeil. "Dessert wines as a category are probably the most crowd-pleasing wines there are. You really almost can't go wrong."
Another good point - a little goes a long way. Dessert wines are often sold in half bottles, which are sufficient to serve a fair-sized crowd since the wines are richer and more concentrated in flavor. MacNeil likes them for when you don't have time, or room, for dessert. They're also a good match for a cookie, a crisp alternative to a heavy dessert.
"I think chocolate chip cookies and Madeira are probably the single best combination in the world," says MacNeil, chairwoman of the wine department at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley branch.
Still puzzled about pairings?
Aline Baly, whose family makes Chateau Coutet, a golden dessert wine from France, likes to keep three things in mind when looking for the sweet spot in dessert pairings: Complement, contrast and/or texture. You don't have to match all three; just try to keep one in mind.
"I'm not an expert chef," Baly points out, "so this is a question that I've had to deal with, especially when I'm traveling and presenting Coutet to other people. I look at my wine, which is very fresh, very crisp, and I'm looking for something that has a lot of freshness, a sweet factor that will complement the style of the wine."
The second option is to go for a contrast with something savory. This is the kind of combo that makes chocolate-covered pretzels a deliciously salty-sweet treat. "People like opposites in their mouths," Baly says.
If you're taking the texture approach, you might look at a food like turkey, slightly dry and chewy, which goes surprisingly well with a full, smooth wine such as Coutet, which comes from the Sauternes region of France. In fact, savory pairings are among the most successful dessert wine partners; Sauternes and blue cheese is a classic.
To get its sweetness, Chateau Coutet relies on a kind of mold known as Botrytis cinerea (aka the "Noble Rot").
This fungus develops on the fruit through the harvest to concentrate the sugar as well as the aromas while maintaining the freshness of fresh fruit by allowing winemakers to pick earlier than a late-harvest method.
Other dessert wines are made by adding grape spirit (alcohol) to the wine part way through to prevent further fermentation and retain some natural grape sugar.
Among the latter category are muscat and topaque wines from Australia, known as "stickies" Down Under because of their sweet nature. (Topaque is a new name Aussie producers came up with for tokay after Hungary reasserted its right to use that name.)
Topaque is made from muscadelle grapes and is fortified with grape spirit, says Rutherglen producer Colin Campbell of Campbells Wines. Muscat from the Rutherglen region in the Australian state of Victoria is made from a grape called "muscat rouge a petit grains" and is made in the same way as Topaque.
When pairing muscat, the older and more complex wines require stronger food, says Campbell. But young muscat and topaque work well, chilled, as an aperitif, pairing with classic starters like prosciutto and melon and cheese, especially washed rind cheeses. Also try it with honeyed ice cream or even poured directly over ice cream.
The bottom line in pairings is to look for balance. You don't want a tooth-achingly sweet, syrupy dessert and a heavy, syrupy wine. As Baly puts it, "the dish can't be louder than the wine and the wine can't be louder the food."