|Sweet Surprises: Wine and Chocolate Matching|
|Guide to Great Chocolate|
Morning light streams through a window onto a round table filled with the paraphernalia of a wine tasting. But this is no ordinary tasting room. It's Jacques Torres' chocolate factory in DUMBO, a section of Brooklyn under the looming Manhattan Bridge where crumbling warehouses and hip businesses share the narrow streets.
Torres, who made his name as a pastry chef at Le Cirque restaurant in New York, now makes chocolates under his own name and provides them to some of the finest restaurants and hotels in New York and elsewhere. Martha Stewart sells them in her catalog. Locals drop in on the cozy shop adjacent to the factory for hot chocolate and pain au chocolat.
These alluring aromas perfume the air on a bright June morning, but executive editor Thomas Matthews, senior editor and tasting director Bruce Sanderson and I steadfastly pass them by. We are here for some serious research: to explore which wines do best with chocolate desserts.
Choosing a wine for most desserts is easy. Just make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert. With chocolate, it gets a little trickier. Chocolate coats the palate, fills the mouth and the nostrils with its dark, distinctive flavor, overwhelming all but the headiest wines. As if that weren't enough, imagine taking a bite of a dense chocolate truffle or a gooey, dark chocolate cake. It generates a true feeling of bliss. How can wine, even a great wine, compete with that?
Should wine lovers give up and just have a cup of coffee with desserts like these? Not at all. After a long morning of hard research, tasting a table full of outstanding sweet wines with great chocolate desserts, we found some chocolate-and-wine combinations that are guaranteed to put an even bigger smile on the face of a serious chocolate lover than the desserts alone ever could.
And that's saying a lot, considering who created these desserts. Torres knows his way around chocolate. He has made plenty of chocolate desserts on his popular television programs, first Jacques Torres' Dessert Circus and now on Chocolate with Jacques Torres, and chocolate appears regularly in his recipe books.
To study in detail just how chocolate desserts affect sweet wines, we asked Torres to prepare a range of chocolate goodies. He made candies, a light mousse and half a dozen more-elaborate desserts, each with a different texture, flavors and intensity of chocolate character. And then we tried them all with a diverse group of high-scoring sweet wines selected by Sanderson. When we found the matches we liked best, we also asked Torres to give us his opinions.
The dozen wines we chose came from six countries and represented the principal techniques in making dessert wines: respectively, dried grapes, fortification and solera systems. In choosing the candidates, we had eliminated lighter styles such as Vouvrays, Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and sparkling Muscats. They're just too light to stand up to serious chocolate. Table wines made from dried grapes included Sauternes from Bordeaux, Tokay from Hungary and Recioto della Valpolicella from Italy. Both late-bottled Vintage and tawny Port, as well as Madeira and Banyuls were among the fortified wines. Sherries and Australian "stickies" represented the solera system.
Overall, we found solera-aged wines such as liqueur Tokays and Muscats from Australia and sweet Sherries from Spain to be the most versatile, matching well with a greater variety of chocolate desserts. Wines that come from a solera -- stacks of barrels, with older and younger wines mingling as they age -- belong in a separate category because of the rich nutty character and layered complexity of flavor they achieve. The combination of these sweet, rich wines with intense chocolate flavor always tastes good, even with desserts that give other wines trouble.
R.L. Buller & Son Tokay Victoria NV, for example, a sweet, silky Australian wine rich with caramel, nut and exotic spice flavors, matches up beautifully with Torres' handmade chocolates. In our tasting, it was especially good with milk chocolates filled with a coffee cream, the flavors in the wine emphasizing the coffee character in the candy.
Torres takes a taste and nods. "I like the way the coffee and the milk bring us to a higher note with this wine," he agrees.
Lustau Sherry East India Solera NV, an oloroso-type Sherry that's not quite as sweet as the Australian wine, also brims with nut and dark spice flavors. Those elements come to the fore with Torres' dense almond chocolate cake. It's topped with intense chocolate ganache, essentially chocolate melted with cream. In combination with the wine, the cake takes on a character that's a dead-ringer for moist gingerbread. In a dessert-and-wine combination like this, chocolate becomes part of the choir instead of a soloist. It's a sensational wine-and-food match.
"I made this because it's the kind of dessert you see on a lot of menus," says Torres. "I like the wine with it. The oloroso takes the flavors in a totally different direction."
Tawny Port, which has the same heady richness and predilection for nut and coffee flavors as these solera-aged wines, comes into its own with gooey desserts, especially those with exotic flavors, such as Torres' Earl Grey chocolate tart. The cream for the tart macerates with the tea leaves, absorbing their distinctive bergamot scent and perfuming the entire dessert. With the tart, the liqueur Tokay really emphasizes the tea flavors, but loses a bit of its sweetness. Sandeman Tawny Port 20 Year Old has the acidity to balance the chocolate and play off the bergamot flavors perfectly.
These matches rely at least in part on the nut flavors present in the wines, exploiting chocolate's natural affinity for nuts. There are similar links with other elements in dessert wines, such as the brilliant raspberry and plum flavors on the refined frame of Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Rimage 2000. That wine finds nirvana in a dessert Torres calls simply "moon"; a small cone of orange mousse nesting in a crescent moon of a chocolate cookie that stands upright on the plate. The Banyuls keys, on the orange mousse, emphasizing its lively fruit flavors as it firms up in texture and becomes extra-focused.
The moon looks dramatic and fragile, but because the pieces are stuck together firmly it doesn't fall over between the kitchen and the dining room. Everything remains intact as Torres turns the plate upside down. "I devised the moon for a charity dinner," Torres laughs. "The idea was have something artistic that the waiters could not destroy." It tastes terrific, too, although the technique for making the cookie requires the dexterity of a true pastry chef.
The most unexpected match of the day involves toasted coconut, a notoriously wine-unfriendly ingredient, and a filling that is extremely rich and creamy. Torres calls it a chocolate coconut napoleon; it layers chocolate cream between paper-thin coconut tuiles. The tawny Port and the oloroso Sherry both work well with it, but the most thrilling match plays the coconut and cream against the tangy acidity and orange peel note in Capezzana Vin Santo del Carmignano Riserva 1996. Made in Tuscany from dried white grapes that are pressed into barrels and sealed until they finish fermenting, leaving some sweetness, the wine creates a balance with this dish that is memorable.
"I think it's the caramelization of the coconut that gives it the kick," says Torres. "To me, the Sherry has a little more character as a wine, but we don't have a perfect match, even though it seems to go in the same direction. I prefer to work with things that will contrast, and that's what the vin santo does. I like a combination that makes you think."
Some of the combinations make us wince, reminding us how tricky it can be to match wine and chocolate. Madeira, for example, is a bust across the board -- just too dry, and it tastes sour with many of the desserts. Recioto della Valpolicella, a sweeter version of Amarone, also loses much of its charm with the sweet desserts. Hungarian Tokay, even at five puttonyos and therefore very sweet, tastes way too tangy with a dessert like the Earl Grey tart.
If there is an overriding message from this tasting, it is that the best odds for a good match are with the fortified and solera wines. Their ripe flavors and full body from generous alcohol levels cut through the richness of the chocolate and find the apppropriate balance. With some desserts, lighter wines such as Sauternes and vin santo can also work, but to avoid unpleasant surprises try them with the food before serving them at a dinner party.
The tasting proves that the right wines can make blissful matches with chocolate. And also that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. After nearly four hours of sensory bombardment, the three tasters want no more wine and nothing sweet. But we need lunch to settle our stomachs, so we stagger around the corner to Grimaldi's pizzeria, an institution on the Brooklyn waterfront. The thin-crust, brick-oven pizza and cold beer make us sigh with relief. The waiter asks if we want some cannoli for dessert. All we can do is stare. "Please," I say. "Just some espresso."
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