Craft chocolate is all about savouring the distinct flavours, textures and tastes that chocolate makers and cocoa growers can coax from their beans.
We believe this is best done in pairs. Try pairs of different craft chocolate bars together. Discuss and share impressions with friends and partners. Pairing craft chocolate with other products can reveal unexpected differences.
Read on for WHAT we think works when pairing craft chocolate and wine; before we suggest some of the reasons WHY.
What works in Pairing Craft Chocolate and Wine
Traditionally, dark chocolate has always been paired with the likes of vintage port. We know this definitely works (see here for a pairing we have for such aficionados).
But dark chocolate also works extremely well with many other red wines. And indeed, dark chocolate works well with many other spirits and drinks. Everything from beer to whisky to rum to sake, the latter works brilliantly with milk chocolate.
What doesn’t seem to work as well is dark (or milk) craft chocolate with white wines. Occasionally some pairings work — in particular at the “sweeter” and floral end of the spectrum. For example, dark milks can work brilliantly with the likes of PX Sherry (see here). But as a general rule, it’s hard to match white wine grapes with craft chocolate.
Why Dark Chocolate and Red Wine Pairings Work
1. Tannins and Astringency
The first reason why red wine and dark chocolate work so well in combination is because they both contain tannins.
Tannins are chemicals that create a “puckering” and drying sensation in one’s mouth by binding the proteins in your saliva to make it less slippery. Technically this is called astringency. Red wine and chocolate both have naturally occurring tannins. For wine, they are in the grapes (or rather the seeds, stems and skins – hence why red wines have more tannins), and in cocoa, they are in the pre-fermented seeds and post-fermented beans.
Tannins are also imparted into wine by the wooden barrels they’re aged in. It may also be that wooden vat-based cocoa fermentation imparts tannins into cocoa beans.
A classic pairing that works by counteracting these tannins and their “drying” of our mouth is meat and red wine. The proteins from the meat reinvigorate the dryness and astringency in your mouth that results from drinking a tannic red wine. And it’s tempting to see the same mechanic at work with Mexican moles and dark chocolate.
The successful pairing of dark chocolate and red wine is more complex. Both cause your mouth to dry out. But combined together, they can work synergistically and help you to appreciate the flavours in both.
The reason for this seems to be a trick of the brain after it’s had something bitter and astringent. Once the brain has had some astringency and bitterness, it seems to act as a palate cleanser. It says to the olfactory centre (aka your sense of smell and flavour), “Okay, now we’ve sensed this, if you want to carry on trying it we’ll allow you to start tasting the flavours instead”.
The best way to demonstrate this is a trick we were taught by Professor Barry Smith. We now try to incorporate it into all our Virtual Tastings. Take a piece of 100% cocoa and try it before and after you’ve chewed a (bitter and astringent) roasted coffee bean. For most of us, the difference is dramatic. Suddenly, after trying the coffee bean, we can detect the flavours in the 100% cocoa. This directly contrasts the primary sensations which were bitterness and astringency.
The power of these “tannin” pairings may also explain why more tannic wines (shiraz, amarone, bordeaux, etc.) pair more effectively with chocolate than red wines that have fewer tannins. Here, an example would include pinot noir.
But the reason white wine and chocolate are harder to pair is also more basic. It’s about one of the essentials of flavour partnering: bringing out similarities and avoiding clashes.
2. Flavour Combinations
One of the most powerful reasons why a pairing works is that the different components “complement” one another, and that they don’t discordantly clash. So, in matching red wines and dark chocolate, one sound guideline is to look for underlying similarities in the flavours of the wines and chocolates.
With the caveat that we are making HUGE generalisations about the wine grapes and cocoa types listed below, here are a few suggestions
- Cabernet Franc, with its earthy, woody and green vegetal notes can pair fantastically with Ecuadorian bars crafted from Arriba Nacional beans.
- Rioja, with its rich, fruity and oaky flavours can pair fantastically with the “chocolatey” notes of Dominican cocoa from the likes of Oko Caribe and Zorzal Cacao.
- Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon can be paired with many Nicaraguan bars. This is really a bit of a cheat as Bordeaux (and cabernet sauvignons in general) vary hugely, but so do the different cocoas from Nicaragua, as Friis Holm’s bars demonstrate perfectly.
- Smoky wines, such as the South African Pinotage, pair well with the smokiness of fire-dried beans from the likes of Firetree, Metiisto, and other south Pacific makers (these bars also go BRILLIANTLY with the Islay Whiskeys like Laphroaig, Laguvilan, etc.).
- Spicy wines like Northern Rhones make a fantastic counterpoint to the lightly pepper-infused bars of Bertil Akesson.