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Pairing Wine & Chocolate: The Agony and the Ecstasy
By Tina Caputo
Jan 20, 2009
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Each year when Valentine's Day rolls around, signs begin to appear outside winery tasting rooms. 'Cabernet and Chocolate Pairing Today!' they trumpet, or 'Zin and Truffle Tasting!' In a similar effort to seduce red-wine-loving chocolate fiends, regional winery associations across the country host wine-and-chocolate weekends throughout the month of February. But unless the wineries on the Cab-n-chocolate trail are offering dessert wines, you can count me out.

Though it would seem that some of the more opulent red table wines -- which often taste sweet and contain nearly as much alcohol as some dessert wines -- would pair deliciously with chocolate, the combo is usually a big fat letdown. The wines just aren't sweet enough to get the job done. Instead of enhancing the chocolate-eating experience, table wines usually leave me -- like any bad relationship -- with a bad taste in my mouth.

Dry reds aren't the only wines that are best avoided with chocolate -- add to the list dry white wines and most sweet ones, including ice wines, dessert-style sparking wines and Sauternes. (Save the dessert-style whites for fruit-based sweets with flavors similar to those found in the wines: apples, apricots, pears, peaches, etc). And do you even need to ask what I think of pairing chocolate with dry sparkling wines?

I know what some of you are thinking: 'I tasted a blah-blah Cabernet with a molten chocolate cake at a winemaker dinner last year, and it was divine!' And maybe it was. But I've found that this sort of experience is rarer than spotted owl burgers at a Sierra Club barbecue.

So which wines are good with chocolate? Plenty of 'em. Chocolate is at its decadent best when paired with sweet red wines like Port (particularly vintage and ruby styles) and late-harvest reds that have flavors and aromas of fruits like raspberries, blackberries and cherries. Dark and bittersweet chocolates tend to work better with wine than milder milk chocolate, which doesn't quite stand up to the tannin and complexity of these reds. In general, the wine should be at least as sweet as the chocolate it's paired with.

Blind Date

To find the best possible pairings for Valentine's Day, I gathered some more-than-willing friends for a chocolate-and-wine tasting. As one friend commented, 'I've been training for this my whole life!' (By the way, this would be a great way to celebrate V-day with your sweetie. Just set out plates of various gourmet chocolates broken into bite-sized pieces and have fun tasting them with different wines to find your favorite matches. If you're feeling adventurous, blindfold your partner instead of covering up the wine labels.)

I chose five different wines for the tasting, including two red table wines that are often paired with chocolate for Valentine's Day events: Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Though I didn't have high hopes for the Zin and Cab pairings, I was open to the possibility that one of them would find a love connection.

The Wines

Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2005: This wine has red berry and spice aromas, medium tannins, and flavors of red berries and spice. It's ripe and fruity, with a bit of smokiness.

Louis Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: A ripe, bold and lush wine with intense black fruit flavors. If ever a Cabernet could work with chocolate, this could be the one.

Dashe Cellars Late Harvest Zinfandel 2007: This dessert-style Zin has pleasing sweetness, raspberry and vanilla flavors, and good acidity -- promising traits for chocolate treats.

Smith Woodhouse Colheita Tawny Port: Though lacking in the red/black fruit character that typifies a good chocolate-pairing wine, I thought this tawny Port's sweet, nutty, caramel-kissed flavors could work well with milk chocolate or caramels.

Graham's 'Six Grapes' Reserve Port: This intensely sweet vintage-style Port has red-fruit aromas, and flavors of ripe blackberries, plum and spice.

The Chocolates

We tasted each wine with a variety of chocolates, which included:

  • Lindt milk chocolate bars
  • Lindt dark chocolate (70% cacao) bars
  • Milk-chocolate-covered caramels flavored with sea salt and hazelnuts
  • Dark-chocolate-covered caramels flavored with sea salt and hazelnuts
  • Dark chocolate laced with spicy chilies. (Hey it's Valentine's Day -- why not heat things up a bit?)

I didn't include white chocolate in the tasting because, technically, it's not really chocolate. Though it contains cocoa butter, true chocolate's mild, pale cousin doesn't include the all-important 'chocolate liquor,' a thick liquid produced when fermented, dried and roasted cocoa beans are shelled and ground. Plus, to be honest, white chocolate just doesn't do it for me.

To-Die-For Pairings

If the dry Zin and Cabernet wines had married their chocolate partners, they'd all be headed for divorce court. The Louis Martini Cabernet was a particularly bad match for the milk chocolate, and the dark chocolate made the wine -- delicious by itself -- taste sour and astringent. The combinations didn't do the wine or the chocolate any favors.

The old vine Zin didn't fare much better. It was just plain awful with the milk chocolate, and even worse with the dark chocolates. And -- crime of all crimes! -- it made the chocolates taste sour and unpleasant.

The Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel made a tasty match for the milk chocolate, and an even better one for the dark chocolate. The intensity of the dark chocolate provided a nice contrast for the sweetness and acidity of the wine -- like adding a delicious raspberry sauce to a rich chocolate cake. The real fireworks came when we tasted the dessert Zin with the dark-chocolate-covered salt caramels. Yum! The wine was also great with the chili-laced dark chocolates.

The Graham's 'Six Grapes' Port was nice with the milk chocolate, but the combination didn't evoke much of a spark. However, the Port's sweetness was a great balance for the heat of the chilies -- the combination was absolutely yummy.

I was hoping the Smith Woodhouse Tawny Port would be a winner with the milder-flavored milk chocolate bar, and of all the wines, it was the best match (if not a terribly exciting one). I was a bit surprised to find that the dark chocolate made a better partner, and when we tasted it with the milk-chocolate-covered salt caramels? Positively orgasmic.

Alas, finding the perfect partner isn't always easy -- in chocolate-pairing or in love -- but the search sure can be fun!