Wine and chocolate. Two decadent treats that customers love to pair. As a chocophile, the hardest question I get from customers is, “I have a big Cabernet and I want to pair it with a good dark chocolate. What chocolate should I buy?”
You may be wondering why I find this question difficult. After all, there are so many similarities between chocolate and wine. They are agricultural products that demonstrate terroir, each one offering a flavor profile that is unique to its origin. Madagascar-origin chocolate, for example, brings bold, juicy red-fruit and citrus notes to the table, offering a distinctive chocolate that makes your taste buds stand up and say, “Wow!”.
Many chocophiles and oenophiles find these two treats hard to match, often turning their noses up at the suggestion of pairing wine and chocolate. While I have not yet found many wines that I like with chocolate, I’m an optimist who is always willing to try combinations to see if I can find a pairing that works for me. I’m happy to keep an open mind when it comes to pairings because you never know what might work. Besides, I want to celebrate the good times with two treats that represent luxury and culinary decadence, so I’m always on the lookout for a good duo.
What makes these two celebratory foods difficult to pair? A number of things come to mind, and I’m sure there are chocophiles and oenophiles who can come up with more. Here’s my short list.
First, sugar. Would you quaff a Cabernet with your dessert? Probably not. Most chocolate has sugar in it, which makes it challenging to pair with wines that are not sweet or fortified. The sugar in the chocolate makes the wine taste sour, stepping on any sweet notes the wine might have and diminishing the sweetness of the chocolate. Instead of enhancing the experience of tasting these two treats together, it lessens it. I recommend reading, “The Food and Science of Wine and Chocolate” from Palate Press for more in-depth information on this topic.
Second, the tannins. Both chocolate and wine have tannins that contribute to the astringent/dry feeling in your mouth. Tasting wine and chocolate together is like getting a double-dose of astringency, leaving the inside of your mouth puckered with dryness.
Third, wine and chocolate each offer a diversity of unique flavor profiles that make them difficult to pair without tasting. Asking me to pair a Cabernet with a dark chocolate without giving me any information about the flavor notes of the Cabernet is a recipe for an unpleasant tasting experience. Madagascar is one of my favorite origins, but it is notoriously difficult to pair with wine. It is an acidic chocolate with bright, red-fruit notes that often clash with wine, which is also acidic.
In order to pair a chocolate and a wine, you have to taste them together first to decide whether the sum of the pairing is as good as or better than its individual parts. If you don’t have the luxury of being able to do that in advance, then I have some guidelines I follow when I’m asked to help a customer pair wine with chocolate. These aren’t scientific, they are the guidelines that work for me, but I offer them as a suggested starting place for your own pairing journey.
- White wines do not pair with dark chocolate. When pressed to pair chocolate with something bubbly (i.e., acidic), I choose a sweet white chocolate that does not include cocoa solids. White chocolate is made of cocoa butter (the fat in cacao), sugar and milk powder. It is missing the cocoa solids that account for chocolate’s acids and tannins, and it’s high in fat, which is a good foil for the acidity of a white wine. A toasted white chocolate, such as Fruition Chocolate’s Toasted White, can work well.
- Try to match flavor profiles. I was once given the advice to either match the flavor profile of a wine and a chocolate, or to go with an opposite flavor profile. Choosing an “opposite” flavor profile seems risky to me (what does “opposite” mean?), so I generally recommend pairing similar flavor profiles. For example, if you have a chocolate with brown fruit notes (raisin, fig) pair it with a wine with brown fruit notes. Without actually tasting the wine, this strategy seems to be the least risky.
- Choose unsweetened chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly, 100% chocolate that has no sweetener added. Eliminating the sweetener eliminates one of the challenges of pairing chocolate and wine. You still need to pick a flavor profile that goes well with the wine in question. Not everyone will enjoy 100% chocolate, but it can make a great wine and chocolate pairing if you’re up for the experience.
- Choose chocolate with a savory flavor profile or savory inclusions. You would probably enjoy a big Cabernet with a large piece of meat, so why not try it with a gamey chocolate? Choosing a chocolate that has more earthy, savory notes often means a less acidic flavor profile and one that pairs nicely with red wines. A savory inclusion bar with added sea salt or parmigiana cheese, for example, can also be a great pairing. The added umami notes can round out the sweetness and the acidity of the chocolate and make it a better companion.
- Stick with sweet or fortified wines. Ice wine, sweet Rieslings, Port, Banyuls, Muscat. These wines work nicely with chocolate because they have residual or added sugars. They may not always be the greatest pairing, but they won’t be bad.
At the end of the day, taste is personal. There are no right or wrong answers about what pairs well with chocolate. Think of it as a glorious journey that gives you permission to try two decadent, luxurious treats in your quest to find pairs that make each other stronger. Or to find pairs that are good enough for you to enjoy on a regular basis. When all else fails, throw these guidelines out the window because the best pairing may come from a surprising place.