In Part 1 of PnP’s review of potentially stellar wine and chocolate matches (click here to read it if you missed it), we went through the boring stuff: general wine/food pairing rules, hand-wringing about how chocolate was going to be a difficult match for most wines, and intellectual guesstimating about what bottles actually might stand a chance at being a good pairing. If you want to save yourself 1500 words or so, I thought a sweet intense red dessert wine seemed like the best choco-match but committed myself to testing out some dry reds too in the name of exploration; given the hypothesis that fruity, intense, not overly tannic reds would win the day, I decided to give Europe the cold shoulder and stick to the New World for dinner wines. With all the hard academic stuff out of the way, last night I got to the fun part: sitting down with some good friends, opening an insane amount of high-end chocolate, cracking 5 bottles of wine (and a bottle of beer for good measure) and doing 4+ hours of taste testing, just for you. Huge thanks to the noses, palates, knowledge and intuition of my trusted friends Brian, Tyler and Farrell, whose impressions and conclusions are all over this post and without whom this exercise would have seemed much more lonely and pathetic.
Our official choco-pairing tasting lineup featured a California Cabernet Sauvignon, a Washington State Malbec, a Niagara Cabernet Franc, a dessert wine from Banyuls in Southern France, a vintage Port and a dark craft beer. I’m going to write up our experiences with the 3 dry reds tonight and leave you in suspense about the dessert reds and the beer for a couple more days…like every moderately good movie idea, I’m stringing this out for at least two sequels. The only unfortunate part about this approach is that you may be too depressed after reading the below to want to come back for Part 3, so I will foreshadow a bit and promise that the wine/chocolate matchups DO get better. Just not tonight.
I declined to score each of the wines we tried last night in order to focus the story on the pairing, but it wouldn’t be Pop & Pour if we didn’t render some judgment about something, so we decided to assign each wine a Compatibility Score based on the strength of its match with dark chocolate. Each of us rated the wine’s choco-friendliness out of ten, and I added all four scores to give every bottle a total Compatibility Score out of 40. I also tried to write down as many comments from my esteemed judging panel as possible in order to give you a well-rounded sense of what a jury of your peers would think of you if you served any of these wines with chocolate. Without further ado, let’s get hedonistic!
Wine #1: 2008 Alias Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($15-$20 CDN): Victoria, my chocolate benefactor who spawned this whole night by sending me samples of antioxidant-heavy Xocai chocolates, specifically requested that we try chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon, and there’s no more iconic New World red than California Cab, so I was happy to oblige. The Alias has a compelling back story: it’s made by 8 winemakers from higher-end Napa estates out to create a luxury-style Cabernet at an inexpensive price by buying grapes from across the state and blending together that rarest of beasts, a bargain Cali Cab. At least that’s the marketing pitch. In reality, while the wine did show some characteristic Cab Sauv aromas and flavours, it didn’t really wow any of us on its own: it featured fuzzy, jammy notes of candied black cherry and cassis and a sort of cherry Halls mintiness, and while it started sweet and aggressive it finished strangely bitter or sour. It was thinner in body than the standard California Cabernet, but somewhere in the midpalate it picked up volume, largely due (according to Brian) to the presence of a fairly pronounced amount of residual sugar for a dry wine. That kind of fruity candied sweetness is why I thought New World reds might stand a chance at pairing with dessert…but instead, the Alias immediately showed that it simply could not withstand the flavour intensity of good quality dark chocolate. As soon as the chocolate was introduced to the equation, the Cab lost its softness and fruit, gained a much more pronounced sour note and took on a strange metallic quality. It was just blown away by the deeper, richer flavours of the food. Some folks on the PnP Judging Panel commented that they didn’t think the flavours of the wine and chocolate meshed very well; I personally was totally unable to get to any of the wine’s flavours once I had tasted the chocolate, tasting only metal and bitterness after the fact. It was universally agreed that this wasn’t a world-beater of a California Cabernet, which could have contributed to its poor showing — a better Cab with higher flavour intensity probably wouldn’t have been obliterated quite to this degree. But after last night, I don’t think you’ll be able to convince me that the common rhetoric that Cab and chocolate are an amazing match is anything more than myth. I hate to start off with the worst combo we came across, but as a group, we were almost unanimous in thinking that the chocolate/Alias pairing worked the least well.
Compatibility Score: 2/10 (Peter) + 3/10 (Tyler) + 2/10 (Farrell) + 3/10 (Brian) = 10/40 = 25%
Wine #2: 2005 Modern Wine Project Malbec, Washington ($25-$30 CDN): We went back and forth about whether to use a Malbec or a Zinfandel in this slot, but we decided to go with Malbec due to its proclivity to generate cocoa-based notes in its flavour profile, and also because of the availability of this particular bottle. The Modern Wine Project is a side label from Washington’s Sleight of Hand Cellars, producers of the disastrous Spellbinder blend and the substantially-better Renegade Red Wine, both of which have previously been reviewed on this site. As the name might have indicated, the raison d’être of the MWP is to create wines using modern winemaking techniques, which is a positive boon when you’re looking for big, intense, fruity reds to pair with some Lindt or Xocai. It was immediately apparent that this Malbec had more “stuff” than the Alias Cab: it was deep, thick, dark and opaque in colour, lush and mouthfilling on the palate, and big on alcohol (15.1%), acid and tannin (though the latter were plush and velvety soft, avoiding the bitterness that we were trying not to accentuate in the pairing). Best of all, on top of prominent notes of blueberry and blackberry, it actually smelled like chocolate! Booya! Aromatic match notwithstanding, however, there was a divergence of opinion about whether the wine truly “worked” with the dark chocolate. I thought that it clearly worked better texturally than the Alias, but there still wasn’t enough sugar in the wine to keep it from tasting bitter after a mouthful of chocolate; to me, the chocolate made the wine finish flat or sour, such that it was far more enjoyable to drink the Malbec by itself than with the Xocai. Farrell wasn’t a huge fan either, but Tyler and Brian rose to MWP’s defence: Tyler felt that the chocolate softened the “punch” of the wine, calmed it down and smoothed it out, while Brian thought the pairing would be totally acceptable and fun if we weren’t micro-analyzing it (he made the valid point that choco-wine pairings more often involve bearskin rugs and fireplaces than notebooks and pens). I still don’t think I can give a pairing a passing grade unless the wine is at least as good with the food as it is on its own, but my curmudgeonly-ness on this point is why I’m giving you four viewpoints for the price of one in this post. As a result: a passing grade!! Barely.
Compatibility Score: 3.5/10 (Peter) + 6/10 (Tyler) + 4/10 (Farrell) + 7/10 (Brian) = 20.5/40 = 51%
Wine #3: 2008 Colaneri Cabernet Franc, Niagara ($25-$35 CDN): Brian brought this bottle as a bonus wine from the Ferocious Grape, and it is unique among Canadian reds in that it was made using the Ripasso method commonly (almost exclusively?) employed in the Valpolicella region in northeast Italy. Ripasso is a way to make a thinner-bodied red fuller, richer and more complex; after fermentation, the base wine is “passed over”, or placed in maturing casks with, used shrivelled dried grape skins, from which it picks up additional colour, tannin and flavour. I have never heard of any Canadian winery employing this technique until now, so kudos to Colaneri for thinking outside of the North American box a bit…unfortunately, the resulting bottle was my least favourite wine of the night. It was lighter, more translucent, and more garnet-hued (as compared to the deep ruby/purple of the other two wines) than its compatriots, and was far more intense on the nose, one of those instantly aromatic wines. But the aromas coming out of the glass were a little oddball in nature: tomato, citrus/pomegranate, meat and wet earth, with only a slight hint of strawberry fruit. Thanks to its uncommon vinification process, it was far fuller on the palate than it looked, but savoury notes still carried the day…not exactly what you want in a chocolate pairing wine. However, I should clarify that I was the only one who ended up taking this negative a view of the Colaneri, both from an absolute perspective and as a pairing match. Farrell approved of the matchup because, unlike the previous two reds, the flavour profile of both the chocolate and the Cab Franc weren’t altered or adulterated as a result of the pairing. Tyler didn’t think the wine and chocolate meshed particularly well, but he didn’t find the melded flavours offensive. I thought the chocolate brought out the worst in the wine, stripping away what little fruit there was and leaving only the weird tomato soup notes as the dominant flavour on the palate. I do agree that the Colaneri had the flavour intensity to stand up to dark chocolate; I just thought the wrong flavours were intense (and also that Campbell’s soup wine is, well, gross). Suffice to say I brought down the average grade on this one.
Compatibility Score: 1.5/10 (Peter) + 5.5/10 (Tyler) + 7/10 (Farrell) + 6/10 (Brian) = 20/40 = 50%
As you can see, I was definitely the Grinch who stole any chance of a half-decent score from these dry wines. I think the wines we picked were generally decent examples of their type and price range (except for the Colaneri, which was just weird), and they were all picked for specific pro-chocolate characteristics, so I don’t believe that another set of 3 dry reds would have done all that much better; I just think mixing any dessert-style sweet food with a dinner red wine is a huge uphill battle, and that the results of this struggle were borne out last night. But don’t despair! If you keep the faith long enough to read Part 3 of this tasting adventure in a few days, you may find that good news is just around the corner…stay tuned!