Do you taste wine or drink wine? Tasting is focusing on one or several wines, their colors, aromas, flavors, textures and length—it calls for drinking plus concentration and observation. Drinking is more relaxed, more convivial, and the conversation does not involve varietal content in the blend.
But I submit that if you are reading this magazine, you are never "just" drinking. You bring some critical faculty to consuming wine no matter the surroundings.
Do you feel the same way about chocolate? Almost everyone loves chocolate, and has from a young age. As a result, opinions are confidently and readily expressed—much more so than with wine for most people. But with the explosion in great chocolate over the past 15 years, there is more opportunity for an experience parallel to wine.
Chocolate today is where wine was 30 or so years ago. The quality has increased dramatically; the good stuff is more broadly available, and now made on these shores as well as abroad. A hungry buying public has appeared.
For now, however, most people are still eating rather than tasting chocolate. I decided I would try to set up a simple and fun system to get people to slow down, break chocolate tasting into a few simple steps, and record their observations.
I made up a tasting sheet, and modified it—especially after one taster said, "Sure, they taste different, but they still taste like chocolate."
There are a number of ways to organize the chocolates. You might want bars from different companies but from one origin, or different bars from one producer. You might want all of a certain percentage dark chocolate, or all milk. My most successful test emphasized bars with larger variations, which help throw one another into relief. Try to choose a range that shares a theme, but that's diverse enough to show that it's not all "just chocolate."
Number each wrapper, write corresponding numbers on the sheets, place a square of chocolate face-down on each section, and you're ready. The steps are similar to wine tasting. Look; break or bite it; smell; taste. Taken alone, each observation could be misleading, but with time you will be able to assemble your observations and get a firm idea of each chocolate.
Look for sheen first. Superglossy bars tend to be very refined. That means they are potentially more complex. Duller bars tend to be more direct. Glossy bars are often more mouthcoating, producing a longer finish. That is not to say "shiny equals better"—a disappointing shiny bar will likely just stick with you longer than a disappointing dull bar. Over time, you will learn what to expect from the visual cues.
Break a piece in your hand, listening for a crisp or dull snap. Examine the broken edges to see if they are clean and jagged or soft and powdery. The sound and appearance can provide further clues about texture. Smell it if you like, but the stuff gives off a lot more information and pleasure when it starts to melt—preferably in your mouth.
The most important, fun part is tasting. I bite a piece, crack it a couple of times between my teeth and then let it melt, moving it around my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I taste each chocolate twice the first time. Usually I taste a little and think about it: What is the texture? How strong is it? How sweet, fruity or bitter? What are the flavors? How long is the finish? I work it out in my head, make a couple of notes. Then I try again, this time concentrating more and writing my observations.
Cataloging secondary flavors on the tasting sheet was by far the most popular part of the testing. The suggested flavors on the sheet help nudge tasters into articulating what they sense. I chose chocolates that are not especially complex because I wanted testers to focus on fundamentals, but they isolated flavors in each bar, and in many cases their results agreed even though they had tasted in silence. The "other" section tended to fill up, too. Tasters wrote in flavors of caramel and raisins, for example.
The last thing to consider is finish. This is very important when you are tasting complex chocolates. They tend to have persistence and flavors that leapfrog over each other for a minute or two. For the purposes of the tasting here, I have kept descriptors fairly open-ended. The final impression is important; is it a fleeting good-bye, or long and warm? Does it leave you with earthy or bitter memories, or sweet? Again, these are not judgment calls. Depending on what came before, all can be good.
You might try this trick, too: In one test group I served seven chocolates. The first five ranged from 70 percent to 85 percent cacao, all very palatable and pleasant, each distinct. The sixth was baking chocolate (make sure everyone has water); it really is something to see people who have been concentrating on flavors try to wrap their palates around this bitter onslaught. But I didn't do it just for kicks.
Last, I served a semisweet (classified as dark, but generally sweeter than percentage-graded bars). Taken by itself as an afternoon treat this would be just fine. But taken after the unsweetened bar it is, as tasters wrote, "saccharine," "cloying." Tasting should inform, but it won't if it isn't also fun.
Owen Dugan is features editor of Wine Spectator.
A Good Starting Lineup
1: Madecasse 70%
2: Green and Black's 70%
3: Lindt 85%
4: Green and Black's 85%
5: Ghirardelli baker's
6: Ghirardelli semisweet