Chocolate & Wine, Sweet on Each Other

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

We have loved chocolate for a couple of decades longer than we have loved wine. For much of that time, in fact, we thought great chocolate to be superior to everything else — wine included.

We were wrong. At that point, we had never tasted the right chocolate paired with the right wine. Once we did, experiencing how the ideal combination somehow made chocolate taste even better by bringing another flavor dimension to the experience, we couldn’t go back. Now we rarely take a bite of chocolate without following with a sip of wine, or at least envisioning which wine that particular chocolate makes us crave.

Chocolate is a year-round pleasure, but the pairing secrets we have learned come in particularly handy now that the season of entertaining and gift giving is around the corner.

First, it’s important to know your chocolate. It offers a range of sweetness and richness represented by dark chocolate (from bittersweet to semisweet, it typically contains 45 to 85 percent cocoa), milk chocolate (which is creamier, as it must contain at least 12 percent milk solids) and white chocolate (which contains no cocoa, just cocoa butter), with different pairing implications.

Few things are as bittersweet as a perfect chocolate dessert paired with the wrong wine, as you know if you have ever been served such a dessert with a glass of dry champagne and suffered through the resulting harsh, almost metallic taste. Select a wine that is just as sweet as, if not sweeter than, the chocolate — obviously easier to do with dark chocolate than with sweeter milk chocolate. For maximum pairing flexibility, opt for fuller-bodied and fuller-flavored wines.

Chocolate coats the tongue, so choose wines with enough acidity to cut through it and refresh the palate. The type of chocolate used is primary, but if there are secondary flavors in a dessert — such as caramel, fruit or nuts — consider them, too, in your choice of wine.

Banyuls, the red dessert wine, is France’s gift to chocolate lovers, as it pairs better with chocolate than virtually any other. We’ve long enjoyed the version of this naturally sweet wine made from Grenache Noir grapes produced by Ey, including the delicate 2001 Ey “Vigne d’en Traginer” Banyuls ($23 for 375 ml). However, in a recent blind tasting of three, it came in only a close third, allowing us to discover new favorites in the slightly richer 2004 M. Chapoutier Banyuls ($25 for 500 ml) and especially the 2005 Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage ($26 for 500 ml), which is as complex as it is fruity. Because of its preponderance of berry flavors, Banyuls pairs especially well with chocolate desserts that have berry notes, such as a flourless chocolate torte served with raspberry coulis.

If you prefer your chocolate dessert with nuts rather than berries, try it with sherry. Pedro Ximinez sherry, known as PX, is Spain’s gift to chocolate lovers. Domecq has been perfecting the art of making sherry for more than three centuries, a history that comes through in your first taste of the extraordinarily concentrated Domecq Venerable Very Rare Pedro Ximinez 30 Years V.O.R.S. Sherry ($79), which has the consistency of chocolate syrup, with flavors of chocolate and caramel, providing a decadent echo of intense richness on intense richness. (The abbreviation in the name, by the way, is short for Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum; just think “Very Old Rare Sherry.”) You’re not likely to find a sweeter, fuller-bodied wine with this kind of stunning balance.

We recommended ports — Portugal’s gift to chocolate lovers — in another recent column (“Not Just Any Old Port,” Oct. 10). Lovers of fruitier Banyuls will want to revisit our ruby port recommendations, plus a luscious California port we’ve fallen for since then: Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Port ($30) from Napa Valley, which boasts bright berry fruitiness. Those who prefer the nuttier flavors of PX sherry can revisit our tips on tawny ports or pour a Broadbent Madeira Reserve 5 Years Old ($20), a caramel-nut elixir we recently enjoyed with milk chocolate.

More-adventurous chocolate lovers should check out the Torres Aqua d’Or ($20 for 500 ml), made with Moscatel grapes. This new favorite boasts delicate flavors of orange and orange zest balanced by caramel notes. It is light-bodied enough to serve as an aperitif with almonds, yet rich enough to pair with chocolate biscotti after a meal.

Raspberry addicts will find themselves awed by Bonny Doon Vineyard Framboise ($14 for 375 ml), which has the intense aroma and flavor of the raspberries it’s made from (with additional grape spirits), captured as if they had been cooked down to jammy preserves. Its sweetness is beautifully balanced by firm acidity, making it a memorable foil for milk-chocolate desserts, though not as reliably for dark chocolate. It is also ideal with white chocolate, which we are not typically big on, although we love this combination.

A whole camp of dry red wine lovers enjoys cabernet sauvignon and the like with chocolate, but we had never pitched our tents there before. However, we recently discovered that the 2005 Tapestry Bakers Gully Vineyard Shiraz ($16) can serve double duty, as it is robust enough to accompany beef or lamb yet jam-packed full of enough fruitiness to pair nicely with a dark chocolate dessert.

Who says you can’t teach a chocolate lover new tricks?

(This column first appeared in The Washington Post.)

Categorized: Wine