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Wine & Chocolate

Chocolate is one of the hardest foods to pair with wine, but a few simple rules can make it easier 

by Tim Gaiser

fromFine Cooking
Issue 91

At least once a month, I get a card or an email inviting me either to attend a chocolate and wine pairing or to teach one. To tell you the truth, this doesn’t surprise me that much. With popular consumer companies making high-end chocolate bars, artisanal chocolatiers sprouting everywhere, and some forward-looking restaurants even creating entire tasting menus using chocolate as the main ingredient, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding really good chocolate these days. So the idea of pairing good wine with good chocolate is only natural—whether it’s a plain chocolate bar, homemade chocolate truffles, or that lovely ganache torte you just baked. But can it be done successfully? The answer to this question is less than clear cut, because finding wines that go well with chocolate can be a challenge.

The reason it’s so tricky is that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is fairly high in tannins (astringent, bitter-tasting particles that come from the cacao bean) and has varying degrees of sweetness. This bittersweet combination calls for wines that match the intensity of flavor in the chocolate (think bold, full-bodied wines) while complementing the bitter and sweet elements. This is why, as a general rule, the stronger the chocolate—that is, the higher the cacao percentage—the more intense the wine should be for a good pairing.

So while it’s true that pairing wine with chocolate requires some thought and preparation, the simple guidelines below will help you find the perfect wine for your favorite chocolate.

Pairing Tips

Avoid serving whites or sparklers with chocolate
A chocolate truffle and a glass of bubbly might sound romantic, but the combination can be a recipe for food-and-wine-pairing disaster. The same goes for still white wines. When you combine high-acid, low-tannin dry wines with an intensely flavored bittersweet food like chocolate, the sweetness of the chocolate will render the wine even drier in the mouth and unpalatably sour. The wine won’t do the chocolate any favor, either, because there’s nothing in it to play off the chocolate’s bitter tannins.

If you must have a sparkler with your chocolate, make sure it’s a demi-sec or dessert-style sparkling wine such as a Moscato d’Asti or Brachetto d’Aqui, which will at least play off the chocolate’s sweetness.

Select a bold red with medium tanninsWhile red wine and devil’s food cake may seem like a natural combination, only some red wines are good partners for chocolate. The best ones are dry, bold, full-bodied reds with medium tannins that can stand up to chocolate’s bitterness (especially semisweet and bittersweet chocolate), such as Cabernets and Merlots. However, for those with a low tolerance for tannins, even these types of reds, with their puckery astringency and lack of sweetness, may prove to be a less than ideal match. Milk chocolate is far less bitter than semisweet or bittersweet, so it’s a little more forgiving and pairs well with even lighter reds with softer tannins. In general, though, the only way to know if red wine with chocolate is for you is to try a variety of chocolates and wines to see if you come up with a combo you like (see the panel below for some suggestions).

Try a sweet fortified dessert wine
Dessert wines are by far the best wines to pair with chocolate and chocolate desserts. But dessert wines are not all the same, and chocolate works well with only some kinds.

Chocolate rarely pairs well with dessert wines like Sauternes that are made from grapes infected with botrytis, a beneficial mold often referred to as “noble rot,” or with passito-style wines made from dried grapes, like Italy’s Vin Santo. These wines lack the necessary tannins to go with chocolate’s bitter elements.

Sweet fortified dessert wines, on the other hand, are a terrific match for chocolate. A fortified wine is one that’s made “stronger” by the addition of a neutral grape brandy as the wine ferments, raising the alcohol content of the finished wine to up to 20%. With their combination of richness, sweetness, and judicious tannins, sweet fortified wines like port (either tawny or ruby), sweet sherry, and sweet Madeira bring out the best in fine chocolate.

Choose your chocolate, choose your wine

  • Milk chocolate: Milk chocolate is the sweetest of all chocolate types, containing more sugar and less cacao (usually about 10%) than darker chocolates. Since milk chocolate is not bitter, you can pair it with dry reds with softer tannins, such as rich Pinot Noirs and lighter Merlots. Young tawny ports and sweeter sherries are always delicious when combined with the silky rich texture of a good milk chocolate.
    Bottles to try
    2006 Beringer Pinot Noir, Napa Valley, $20
    2005 Hahn Estate Merlot, Central Coast, $14
    NV Yalumba Clocktower Tawny Port,
    Australia, $14
    NV Lustau East India Sherry, $21
  • Semisweet chocolate: With its higher cacao content (at least 35%) and more intense cocoa flavor, semisweet chocolate pairs well with slightly more intense wines, like rich, fruity Zinfandels and Shirazes. Fine, aged tawny ports and simple ruby ports will also match the levels of sweetness and tannins in the chocolate.
    Bottles to try
    2005 Joel Gott Zinfandel, California, $15
    2005 Penfolds Thomas Hyland Shiraz,
    Australia, $16
    Fonseca Bin 27 Ruby Port, $16
    Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port, $28
  • Bittersweet chocolate: Bittersweet chocolate, with more than 70% cacao, can more than hold its own with tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignons or bolder Merlots. But good bittersweet chocolate really sings with a fine ruby port, like a late-bottled vintage port or single quinta port. Sweet sherries such as cream sherries, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel are also wonderful with bittersweet chocolate.
    Bottles to try
    2004 Dry Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon,
    Dry Creek Valley, $22
    Smith Woodhouse “Lodge Reserve”
    Vintage Character Port, Portugal, $18
    Blandy’s Malmsey 5-Year-Old Madeira, $20
    NV Osborne Pedro Ximénez 1827, $14

Photo: Scott Phillips

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