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When chocolate meets wine
2015-04-23
By John H. Isacs

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Last week’s column reflected on the relationship between wine and coffee, a strange yet intriguing relationship that necessitated some artistic license.

This week’s column musing the rapport between wine and chocolate is far easier. Why? Because wine and chocolate have a more natural and intimate relationship. When done properly, it’s a match made in heaven.

When the first Spanish conquistador came across the theobroma tree that produces the cocoa beans that are then used to make chocolate, he almost certainly had no idea of the culinary craze to come.

In his wildest dreams he could never have imagined the gastronomic significance of his discovery. Long before the arrival of Columbus, the indigenous Central American natives intimately understood the lure of this stimulating bean.

The oldest known civilization in the Americas, the Olmecs, were enjoying chocolate drinks and derivative foods over a thousand years before the birth of Christ.

This precious bean also played an important role in the subsequent Mayan and Aztec cultures where it was consumed in solid and liquid form and even used as a currency.

The Aztec men believed that cocoa bestowed them with enhanced physical powers in battle and bequeathed greater sexual potency.

At the end of the 15th century the earliest European discoverers of the New World brought back cocoa beans and chocolate products, but they were more of a novelty and not part of the European diet.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 17th century that chocolate drinks first became popular in Spain and surrounding countries.

Unlike the natives of Central American who preferred their chocolate bitter and spiced with fiery chili peppers, the Europeans added sugar, honey and other ingredients to sweeten and soften their chocolate drinks.

Over the next few centuries, only the European elite could afford chocolate thereby helping establish its image as a luxury food. By the 19th century, new production techniques and mass production brought chocolate to the masses and the global popularity of this unparalleled treat was firmly established.

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Wine pairing

Now to the fun part, pairing chocolate with wines. Chocolate like wine comes in many styles so there are countless paring possibilities, some much better than others.

Let’s pick some popular styles of chocolate then suggest some embellishing vino partners. Sequentially we’ll start from mild chocolates to more intense

Mellow and pleasant white chocolates aren’t really chocolates at all as they only include cocoa fat and not cocoa. Nonetheless good white chocolates are delicious and even more delectable when matched with a similarly gentle wine.

A beautifully feminine choice is the sweet, light sparkling wine Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont in northwestern Italy.

The low alcohol and delicate sweet flavors of the wine complement rather than overwhelm the subtle flavors of the white chocolate while the balanced acidity in the wine assuages any excess creaminess on the palate.

Demi sec Champagne and other traditional method sparklers sometimes also make nice partners but unlike the more delicate Moscato d’Asti wines their more intense flavors and acidity sometimes overwhelms white chocolate.

When choosing a Moscato d’Asti wine look for top producers like Michele Chiarlo and Pio Cesare.

The quality of milk chocolate varies greatly from insipid sugar filled commercial brands to higher quality examples with a balance between creaminess, sweetness and chocolate intensity.

Cream Sherry is one of the best companions to high quality milk chocolate as the sweetness, texture and intensity of both the chocolate and wine beautifully mirror each other while the alcohol cleanses the palate. One of my favorite Sherries to pair with milk chocolates is the Bodegas Hidalgo Alameda Cream.

High quality dark chocolates with at least 66 percent cocoa solids find some wonderful partners in robust and heady red wines. Two ideal companions of dark chocolate are Californian Zinfandels or Italian Amarones.

Over a century ago the famed French oenologist Emile Peynaud proved that alcohol itself tastes sweet and heightens the feeling of sweetness in a wine.

Therefore it’s no surprise that these ripe and fruity red wines with 15 percent or higher alcohol provide the necessary sensations of sweet fruitiness to pair well with gourmet dark chocolate.

The smooth tannins in the wines also tend to pleasantly accentuate the slightly spicy and bitter nature of dark chocolates thereby providing an even more palate-pleasing experience.

To optimize your wine and dark chocolate experience, pick Amarone wines from reputed Veneto producers like Masi, Zonin and Tommasi or one of the premium California Zinfandels from Seghesio, Frog’s Leap, and Ridge Vineyards and Ravenswood.

When you have a mixed bunch of chocolates from white to dark your safest bet is a sweet fortified wine. Port and sweet Sherries pair nicely with the widest range of chocolates. Even the bitterest dark chocolates with very high cocoa percentages won’t overwhelm these fortified Iberian stalwarts.

A good sweet fortified wine has the power and generous fruitiness to stand up and to sooth the most extreme of chocolate sensations.

Many chocolates also contain dried fruits or nuts and these ingredients have long been preferred partners of sweet Sherry or Port wines.

Recommended wines include the budget-worthy Graham’s Fine Ruby or should you wish to splurge a bit more try the Graham’s 10 or 20 Year Old Tawny. Two superb, yet also good-value, sweet Sherries are the East India Sherry and Pedro Ximénez San Emilio Solera Reserva from Lustau.

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Not just dessert

Another angle on chocolate and wine pairing is when wine accompanies non-dessert chocolate dishes. Perhaps the most famous is turkey mole from Puebia Mexico.

This classic dish combines savory turkey with a thick rich chocolate sauce that often also quite spicy. It’s a delicious combination that begs a hearty red wine, preferably one from the Americas like an Argentinian Malbec or Chilean Carmenere.

These pairings work well because the robust flavors of chocolate sauce don’t overwhelm or deafen the fruity tones and gentle tannins of the wines. These reds also cleanse the palate and accentuate the original flavors of the turkey.

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