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Pairing Chocolate and Wine

The concept of combining two of the most historically revered tastes on the planet, chocolate and wine, into one exquisite experience sounds simple but you should be forewarned that it will require some research to find combinations that bring out the positive in both partners to the match.  An unsuccessful match will leave your guests with a dry mouth from the wine and the chocolate will seem dull and lackluster. The best way to avoid stepping into such a pitfall is to preview your wine/chocolate combinations before incorporating them into your tasting event.   If you are willing to do your homework, your guests will reap the reward.

There is a difference of opinion concerning the wisdom of pairing wine with chocolate. Some claim that the bitterness in the chocolate masks the tannins in the wine needed for the wine’s flavor to properly unfold…but it is our opinion/experience (and more notably that of some very prominent chocolatiers) that combining wine and chocolate, if done with care, leads to an entire new realm of possibilities.  At the 2006 Chocolate Show in New York City (one of the two annual major events in the chocolate world,) wine infused truffles flavored with Cabernet, Red Zinfandel, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, were introduced with huge success (please see Wine-Flavored Chocolates Are All the Rage at 2006 Chocolate Show for more details). There are also specialized venues geared toward high-end chocolates specifically matched with wine and other liquors. As always, we suggest that you form your own opinion.

If you are newly discovering the world of chocolate, you may want to develop your foundational understanding of the flavors and notes that can be found in chocolate before attempting to combine them with wine or other spirits.  Armed with that knowledge however, you are ready to begin combining.  There are two different ways to approach this:

  1. Attempt pairings where both partners offer similar notes (i.e. both with notes of peach, cherry, nut, caramel, etc.)
  2. Try for matches that contrast but compliment each other (for example, a chocolate with toffee notes can be enhanced by a tawny port with nutty undertones)

Each wine will have unique notes and personality based on the variety, vineyard, vintage and vintner.  This is also true for the chocolate (cacao content, sugar content, intensity, texture.)  The individual palate of the person is also a complicating factor; one person may experience notes of mango while another would swear to pineapple.  So much variation makes standard rules for pairing difficult to formulate.  Just remember that tasting should be about the fun of exploration, with your resolve fortified by the possibility of discovering a “match made in heaven.”   Below are some general suggestions/guidelines that may be of assistance to you in selecting combinations; just keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules.

General Guidelines

Guideline Number 1:

The sweetness of the wine should be as great or even slightly greater than the specific chocolate or flight of chocolates you will taste with that wine.  It follows that chocolate with a low sugar content (bittersweet dark chocolate) will pair with a greater number of wines than a sweeter more delicate chocolate (white chocolates or milk chocolate.)
Note:  Remember that the “sweetness” of a wine is not only influenced by the sugar content (attributable to the grapes used to make the wine) but also by the alcohol content.  Alcohol itself is sweet to the taste and contributes to the overall “sweetness” of the wine.  “Fortified” wines (such as port) will have extra alcohol added to the wine.  If you are evaluating wines with similar sugar content, the one with the higher alcohol content will generally be the sweeter of the two.  On the other hand, the acidity of the wine (which gives it “tartness”) reduces the sweetness.  A very acidic wine will be difficult to match with a sweet chocolate.

Guideline Number 2:

The intensity of the wine should be considered in your pairing choice.  The more delicate chocolates should be matched with lighter wines while the stronger bittersweets should be paired with bold wines.  A good example is a bittersweet chocolate paired with a full-bodied California Zinfandel.

Guideline Number 3:

When deciding on the order of the tasting, you should begin with the sweeter chocolate and work towards the bittersweet end of the chocolate spectrum.  Likewise, as with traditional wine tasting, start with the lighter delicate wines and work towards the heavier selections.  Some feel that it is best to taste the wines by themselves and then revisit each wine, adding the chocolate selections in a “second round.”

Guideline Number 4:

The sweeter and more full-bodied the wine, the more chocolate selections will work well with that particular wine selection.   However, try to avoid so called “dessert wines” because despite their generally higher sugar content, they also tend to have high acidity, giving them a tartness that makes it difficult to match with many sweet desserts.

You will have to decide on the number of wines you wish to offer.  This can be anywhere from a single wine up to twelve selections (4 to 6 wines will offer your guests a good range without exhausting their palates.) Your choice may depend, in part, on the time you have allotted for the tasting, your budget, your wine expertise and the sophistication of your guests.

The following chart is basic and intended only to be a generalized partial listing of categories of chocolates and wines that may pair well.  It is offered only as a starting point for your expeditions.  Each wine and chocolate classification includes many unique products with individual attributes and the notes.  Remember your objective is to find chocolate/wine combinations that have complimentary notes.  Exploring the possible combinations should be part of the adventure.

 

Chocolate Category Wine Possibilities
White Chocolate
(There is no cocoa in white chocolate so if paired with the more acidic wines, it will not result in the tartness milk or dark chocolates might produce)
Muscato d”AstiSweet Champagne
(Demi-sec)Orange MuscatFruity ChardonnayRiesling
Milk Chocolate
(Chocolate with milk added. The U.S. requires that it contain at least 12% whole milk and 10% chocolate liquor)
Pinot NoirLight MerlotMuscatRieslingTawny Port
Dark Chocolate
Including both semisweet (50% – 69% cacao content)  and bittersweet
(70% cacao content or higher)[The higher cacao concentrations in these chocolates make them pair better with the stronger red wines and wines with greater flavor intensity]
CognacTawny PortZinfandelMerlotBordeauxShirazCabernet Sauvignon
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