"People never outgrow their need for chocolate," insists my wife, Carol, who amuses friends by insisting that chocolate is one of the four major food groups. (The others, she jokes, are salt, fat and alcohol.) On a mignardise tray I spy a chocolate caramel sprinkled with sea salt. "Let's pick a wine with this," I suggest, "to make it a complete meal."
Nutrition aside, wine and chocolate can create a heady experience, when the match comes out right. I have a long list of favorite wine types with chocolates and chocolate desserts, depending on their relative sweetness levels. Getting the sweetness levels in balance is the trick to finding a wine to enjoy with chocolate.
Rich fortified wines such as Port, sweet Sherry and those luxurious Rare Muscats and Muscadelles (formerly called Tokays) from Australia rate among the best choices. But light, fizzy wines such as naturally rose-scented Brachetto from northern Italy can delight in a different way. And the French swear by Banyuls, a sweet, fortified red made from Grenache.
Polished and ripe young dry reds can find a great friend in high-cacao-content chocolates. Cacao alone tastes bitter, which is why no one wants to eat unsweetened baking chocolate. With just enough sugar to taste "neutral," however, bittersweet chocolate can balance with a dry-style wine; in my experience, a good bittersweet chocolate can even bring out extra nuances in a dry red. Scharffen Berger makes a version with cacao nibs in it that tends to amp up the fruit flavors and creamy textures in polished young reds.
Think about it: The fruit flavors in red wines run toward cherries, raspberries, strawberries and currants, flavors often found in chocolates. Young reds can have vanilla and cream overtones, familiar companions to chocolate desserts. Some reds even taste chocolaty.
Sweeter chocolate, though, cuts down the richness of a dry red. Chocolate bars that show more than 12 grams of sugar per serving on the nutrition label are about the limit with these wines. To be on the safe side, always go for a wine that tastes sweeter than the chocolate, which is a good rule of thumb for all desserts.
At great personal sacrifice, I once labored a whole day tasting chocolate desserts and wines. (It sounded like fun at first, but the buzz in my ears by the end of the task got as loud as a passing 747.) The most important finding was that the wines most versatile with chocolate desserts, such as Sherries from Spain and fortified Muscats and Muscadelles from Australia, come from a solera.
A solera (stacks of barrels, with older and younger wines mingling as they age) produces rich, nutty characteristics and layered complexities of flavor in the wines it creates. Nuts always taste good with chocolate. Think of almond-studded bars, peanut butter cups or Italian gianduja, which blends in hazelnuts. Even with chocolate desserts that gave other wines trouble, these sweet, rich wines excelled. Drier-style solera-aged wines won't like chocolate desserts as much as these sweet ones do.
I also like tawny Port with chocolate desserts, especially those with some citrus or spice flavors. The nut-and-spice character of a tawny emulates that of solera-aged wines, but somehow comes off as tighter. Keep in mind that Australian tawnies are sweeter than Portugal's classics. When chocolate desserts emphasize fruits such as peaches or apples, Sauternes or late-harvest Rieslings can make good matches.
Flavor bridges play a big role in how well Port and Banyuls play with chocolate. Port, which is fortified and sweet but not aged in a solera, sports flavors such as cherries and other dark red fruits, just like dry red wines, and can even have chocolate overtones of its own. But be aware that even though it can have some sweetness, Port doesn't like very sweet desserts.
I also like sweet rosés with chocolate; the silky texture and bright raspberry and plum flavors in many versions can stand up to a fairly sweet chocolate dessert and become opulent with something on the bittersweet side. Brachetto, a low-alcohol delicacy, has rose-petal grace notes to its strawberry fruit character and does especially well with chocolate-covered fruit such as dipped strawberries.
Do yourself a favor, though, and save Champagne for other purposes. Sweet chocolate can make even the best dry Champagne taste sour. That's bad news for romantics who want to serve Champagne and chocolates on Valentine's Day, I'm afraid. Instead, balance sweetness with some great dessert-wine discoveries. You won't regret it.
Editor at large Harvey Steiman has been with the magazine since 1984.
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