Caramel is simply sugar that’s heated until it melts and turns brown. Yet caramelized sugar is about as far from white sugar as glass is from sand. We all know it as an ingredient or sauce for desserts, but it’s also a tasty umami-laden base note for savory dishes, much like brown butter, sweet soy sauce and miso. Many Vietnamese dishes start with a simple caramel, which is then offset by salt (such as fish sauce) and acid (such as vinegar or citrus) to make magic. Try adding caramel as the sweet element on chicken wings, in pan sauces for pork or duck, with roasted vegetables, even in salad dressings. Or just stick your spoon in the jar, pop open a bottle and contemplate its beauty.
Try This Recipe: Whiskey Caramel Sauce with Bitters
It’s no secret that caramel is sweet, but it’s hardly sweet like a mango; this is a dark, even dank, sticky kind of sugar rush. Ice Riesling, the Finger Lakes’ take on Canadian Icewine, has intense sweetness to match, but with piercing acidity that somehow refreshes, for a pairing that is both complementary and contrasting.
Flavorwise, caramel hovers somewhere between brown sugar and molasses, with earthy charred notes as the heat turns the sugars brown (think of a caramelized onion). Argentinian Malbec has notes of sweet tobacco, smoldering embers and roasted plum, with lots of tannins to cut caramel’s innate richness. Ample fruit lends a similar feeling of lushness as the caramel.
Not all caramel has dairy, but butterscotch and other dairy-based caramels are among the most delicious, and any silky caramel sauce can hint at butter even when there’s none in the recipe. Here, oak is your friend, so try oaked Napa Chardonnay. These don’t just boast buttery flavors, but ripe fruit and balancing acidity so the pairing doesn’t feel heavy on the palate.
Given the popularity of salted caramel (and caramel corn), most caramel recipes include salt to evoke that flavor sensation. Most dry whites with saline notes—like Assyrtiko, Muscadet and Vermentino—lack the body to pair with caramel, so grab the Amontillado sherry. It has a caramel-like fullness in the mouth with flavors of salted nuts that are perfect with caramel.
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Quick Caramel Sauce
In a small heavy saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar, 1/3 cup water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt until sugar dissolves. Place over medium heat, without stirring (you can swirl the pan if you like), until it turns golden brown. Remove from heat, stir in 3/4 cup heavy cream, stirring with wooden spoon or heat-resistant rubber spatula until bubbles subside, and return to heat until it reaches 225°F on a candy thermometer. Transfer to a heatproof container and cool. Keeps two weeks, refrigerated.
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Published: November 14, 2023