I had a great Chocolate Making 101 class at Wander’s Chocolates in Manassas, Virginia this past Saturday. Lot’s of gooey chocolate and plenty of samples of ganache and a variety of top quality chocolates like Valhrona and El Rey. Chocolate is very much like wine – the location that the cacao pods are grown has a very noticeable effect on the final flavor and intensity of the final chocolate. Many processes occur to make your final chocolate such as conching, but much of the flavor as in red wine is from the concentration of flavor compounds in the pod – interestingly enough, these compounds are the same compounds that make both red wine and dark chocolate healthy for you. The reason milk chocolate and white chocolate aren’t quite as healthy for you is because they have other additives other than cacao.
So what wine goes with chocolate? The answer is a bit controversial because many wine tasters disagree what is a good pairing. I have always heard from wine pros that dessert wines and desserts go together, but personally, I think this is mostly wrong – for me, if I put a sweet dessert in my mouth and sip a sweet dessert wine, they really cancel each other out – I prefer dessert wines with salty foods, fatty foods (foie gras and Sauternes comes to mind) or just by themself.
Chocolate on the other hand has an earthy component (have you ever heard a wine described as having cocoa or mocha components?) that can pair well with earthy wines – and most earthy wines are red. The traditional pairing for chocolate is Port because it contains two excellent pairing components: it’s sweet to reduce th sweetness of the chocolate and its red with usually a bit of earth Portuguese red varietals that counterbalance chocolates cocoa components. In some ways the compounds from red wine skins match cacao flavors, and this makes the chocolate much less earthy. I’ve had many wines with chocolate, and I find that less complex reds like basic Italian Sangiovese (like Chianti) and Spanish Tempranillo often go really well. As in most food and wine pairing, simpler less concentrated wines with decent acidities tend to go better with food, while big trophy wines tend to be better without food – they show best on their own.
Originally, Montezuma allegedly drank 50 cups or so of cacao a day in order to keep his harem happy and to multiply. But the original cacao had no sugar, but was in fact mixed vigorously (frothed) with herbs, hot peppers and sometimes even mushed up corn. Chocolate was a savory beverage, and not until the Spanish brought it back to their country and added sugar to it, did it become closer to the “hot chocolate” that we know today – candy bar chocolate came much later. The point here is that chocolate is actually a savory item and that a nice red wine, even a Merlot can often go well. As I always say, food and wine pairing is not a science: taste, experiment and taste a variety of food and wine pairings until you find what you like. The good news too is that no one ever dies from a bad food and wine pairing, all you get is slightly less pleasurable or bad experience – but the fun is in the learning – cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler