Tips & Tricks: Pairing Wine With Chocolate, Part 1

2 10 2011

How you know you’ve made it as an amateur blogger:  when somebody sends you free chocolate.  Me, as of this week?  Made it.

The (few) perks of writing a free blog.

One of this site’s dozens (OK, dozen) of loyal subscribers is Victoria Kaye, an Ontario-based marketing guru, freelance writer and distributor of the Xocai lineup of chocolate products.  Victoria is a blogger in her own right, regularly churning out insightful posts about her unique choco-wares at her site XoXoXocai.  I took particular notice of this site not only because it shares a platform affiliation with PnP (holla WordPress!) but also because it so happens that Victoria and I started up our respective blogs within a week of each other at the start of March 2011…as I’m continually reminded, it’s a small world full of strange coincidences.  Victoria actually first stumbled across Xocai chocolates as a guest at a wine tasting, and since then has been wanting to delve further into the intricacies of pairing wine with chocolate; the chocolate package I received was conditional on my attempting to respond to this very issue.  Well, chocolate received and mission accepted!

Wine and chocolate is a pairing that seems to have been universally sold as a match made in heaven (if Hallmark cards, romantic getaway packages and any Valentine’s Day episode of any TV show in history are effective barometers of these kinds of things).  In reality, however, I have a hard time envisioning there will be even a handful of wine styles that will truly form a mutually-enhancing match with most types of chocolate.  Even before I started looking into this in detail, I thought that chocolate had two key characteristics that would severely restrict the number of wines that would taste good with it:  it’s sweet and it’s distinctive.  Dry wines generally don’t match up well with sweeter foods, and foods with individual and assertive flavours automatically narrow their pairing options because they’re incapable of simply being a blank canvas that can be fleshed out by multiple different wine choices.  There are assuredly some truly symbiotic wine matches for chocolate out there, but my guess is that they’re few and far between.  Of course, that’s not going to stop me from trying to find them.  The goal of this post is to narrow down what to look for in a potential chocolate pairing, after which I’ll go buy a few likely candidates, recruit some willing volunteers, then take a bullet for all of my dear readers by eating a lot of chocolate and drinking a lot of wine to find out what tastes good with what.  The results of my strictly-for-science tasting night will be posted shortly after its completion (i.e. as soon as I come out of the sugar coma).

Not gonna lie -- that's some intimidating X-packing.

I’m fortunate to be undertaking this task using some truly high-end and intriguing chocolate.  The Xocai care package I received contains four different types of individually-wrapped dark chocolates, all made out of 70%-cocoa Belgian chocolate and all naturally enhanced with acai and blueberries; the two fruits are used partly to add flavour components but mostly to substantially ramp up the levels of antioxidants in the resulting product.  Dark chocolate and red wine share these beneficial antioxidant properties (one of the main reasons why a glass of red wine a day is supposed to be good for you), but the Xocai lineup is aiming to take these health benefits to another level.  If you have more interest in the nutritional aspect of these chocolates, I would encourage you to read up on what Victoria has written on the topic; however, for the purpose of this tasting experiment I will be focusing mainly on their flavour components and how we can increase our chances of vinous success with a wine that meshes well with as many of these elements as possible.  The chocolates being tasted will include the Xocai Nuggets, Omega Squares, Power Squares and XoBiotic Squares (click each link for more info), but these may be supplemented with other 70%-cocoa dark chocolate to meet supply requirements, so this discussion should be read as extending to the pairing of any kind of dark chocolate with wine.

Wine and food pairing recommendations are  like the Pirate Code:  more like guidelines than actual rules.  Basic matching considerations are always a good place to start when looking at any potential pairing, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt, or at least not slavishly followed when individual circumstances dictate otherwise.  In the case of chocolate, there are a number of such recommendations that apply:

  • Match Sweet Foods with Sweeter Wines:  Sweet foods (dessert or otherwise) are usually best paired with wines that are as sweet or sweeter than they are.  When a food is sweet, it decreases our perception of sweetness, fruitiness and body in the paired wine, making the wine seem thinner and more bitter, tart and acidic than it actually is.  A wine that might seem sweet or fruity with a savoury dinner will not taste the same with dessert; the wine hasn’t changed, but its various flavour elements will be masked or enhanced on your palate based on the food match.  This obviously has huge implications for chocolate, which features dessert levels of sweetness.  Since sugar, fruit and body in wine will not be perceived as strongly with a sweet food, the best pairing for chocolate will be a wine high in one or (likely) more of these elements so that they can still make themselves known; conversely, since bitterness and acidity will be perceived more strongly with chocolate, the ideal choco-wine will be low in both so as not to seem horribly dry and sour in the presence of food sugar.
  • Match the Richness & Flavour Intensity of the Food and the Wine:  Rich, weighty foods, or foods with strong, powerful, aggressive flavours need a wine of similar richness/intensity or they will drown it out entirely.  Dark chocolate, while not overly heavy on its own, generally packs quite a punch in your mouth, and the flavour lingers on long after you swallow, so delicate, shy wines need not apply for this pairing.
  • Complement or Contrast:  You can successfully pair food and wine by marrying complementary flavours (i.e. rich buttery lobster and rich buttery New World Chardonnay) or by contrasting key components of the food with the wine (i.e. heavy/oily battered fish & chips and crisp acidic Sauvignon Blanc).  The fact that “chocolate” comes up as a tasting note in so many wine reviews (including probably a dozen or so on this site) suggests that taking the complementary route here might be a shortcut to pairing paradise.  This in turn is a strong hint that a good chocolate pairing is most likely to be a red wine, as reds are always what attract the “chocolate” descriptor.
  • Avoid Matching Bitter Foods with Bitter/Tannic Wines:  This one is a little less set in stone than the others, but it’s commonly thought that bitterness in food increases the perception of bitterness in wine.  After sweetness, one of the most evident parts of dark chocolate’s tasting profile is its bitterness, so pairing it with a bitter, tannic monster of a wine will likely end in disaster, or at least discomfort.

Natural wine match? Think again.

To summarize, if we’re looking for the most likely wine match for dark chocolate, we’re probably looking for a wine that (1) has a high level of sweetness/fruitiness; (2) is not overly bitter or tannic; (3) has a high level of flavour intensity; and (4) contains chocolate notes itself in its flavour profile (which means that it is most likely a red).  With these four rules, we have crossed a LOT of wine off the list.  My personal opinion going into the tasting is that it will be awfully hard for any dry wine to pair comfortably with the chocolate:  I just think that dry wine with dessert is such a hard sell and that the sugar levels in the chocolate will make any non-dessert wine seem harsh and unappealing.  That said, I can’t strand your vino-chocolate hopes on the tiny island that is red dessert wine without at least seeing if we can make some dinner wines work too.  In order to give the dry side of the wine ledger the best chance of success at the tasting, the plan is to stick to warm-weather New World (i.e. non-European) reds with chocolate flavour characteristics — New World reds are much less likely to have powerful, grippy, bitter tannins than their Old World counterparts, and warm New World regions like California or Australia routinely produce intense, extremely fruity, smooth reds containing chocolate notes (which may even contain some residual sugar, although the fruitiness can also taste like sweetness on the palate).

Without giving away too much too soon, I can tell you that the upcoming Pop & Pour Wine and Chocolate Pair-Off Extravaganza will feature these great whitered hopes for choco-pairing perfection:  (1) a California Cabernet Sauvignon; (2) a New World Malbec or Zinfandel; (3) a relatively young vintage Port; (4) [hopefully, if I can actually track it down anywhere] a bottle of Banyuls, a Grenache-based red dessert wine from southern France; and (5) a mystery wine that you’ll just have to wait for, but that will likely be made from something other than big red grapes.  The Cab is a special request from Victoria, as she tells me that Cabernet Sauvignon is the red wine highest in antioxidants (and thus, when paired with the hyper-antioxidized Xocai, could give you a couple years’ worth of AO protection in a single dessert course…if the pairing actually works, that is).

So there you have it…which wine do you think has the best chance of success?  Have I left out any blatantly obvious pairing candidates?  I think this is a Port vs. Banyuls showdown all the way, but after completing my first read-through of my WSET Advanced textbook this week, I can confirm that there is an AWFUL lot that I don’t know about wine, so my prediction may well mean that a dry wine will be walking off with the title.  Keep your eye out for Part 2 of this post with tasting results in the next couple of weeks! 



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