With Feb. 14 just around the corner, lovebirds and singles alike have chocolate and wine on the brain, whether it’s finding the right choices to complete your Valentine’s Day festivities or treating yourself to an indulgence. Though many people think of the two treats as a match made in heaven, pairing them properly can be more difficult than meets the eye. We’ve got expert tips to help you find the ideal mates, from how to taste chocolate to the principles of pairing, plus chocolates to go for as gifts and recently rated sweet wines that earned very good, outstanding and classic scores.
How to Taste Chocolate
If you’re a wine lover, you’re probably never “just” drinking wine; on some level, you’re observing and evaluating the color, aromas, tastes and texture. But when it comes to chocolate, even with the recent explosion in high quality chocolates, most people today are still eating rather than tasting chocolate. Wine Spectator features editor Owen Dugan put together a fun guide to get chocolate lovers to slow down, really taste the chocolates, and learn more about what they like best.
To create a couples’ tasting experience for Valentine’s Day or put together a whole tasting party for friends, we’ve excerpted a few tips. (Or read the full article here and download a handy chocolate tasting sheet.)
- Pick a theme. It could be different bars from one producer, bars from several producers but that share the same geographic origin or same percentage of dark chocolate. Or start off with bars that show large variations to help
- Taste them blind. If you’re trying this with a group, remove labels so people can’t be influenced by their perception of the brand. Serve the chocolates broken into squares, place them face down and identify them by numbered tags
- Look first, then break or bite it. Evaluate sheen; glossy bars tend to be more refined and more complex. Listen for the snap when you break it, whether the sound is crisp or dull, which gives clues to texture. Smell if you like, but you’ll get a lot more out of it once it starts to melt in your mouth.
- Taste and think. Bite the chocolate a couple of times, then let it start to melt in your mouth. What is the texture? How strong is it? How sweet, fruity or bitter? What are the flavors? You can catalog the secondary flavors, such as caramel or raisins. (See our tasting sheet for suggestions.)
- Consider the finish. Complex chocolates tend to have persistence and end with many overlapping flavors. Is it a fleeting good-bye, or long and warm? Does it leave you with earthy or bitter memories, or sweet?
- If you’re blind-tasting chocolates, Dugan recommends a trick to test your guests’ palates: planting baking chocolate as a “ringer” in the mix. “It really is something to see people who have been concentrating on flavors try to wrap their palates around this bitter onslaught,” said Dugan, who noted that after sampling the bitter bar, his tasters found a semisweet version “saccharine” and “cloying.” "Tasting should inform, but it won't if it isn't also fun.”
- The best palate cleanser for tasting is water. Save the wine for afterwards once you’ve decided which chocolates to continue eating.
Video: How to Taste Chocolate—A Guide for Wine Lovers
What should you look for in great chocolate? How is tasting chocolate similar to tasting wine? What is the best way to store chocolate? Features editor Owen Dugan gets the asnwers with Riccardo Illy of Domori chocolate, as well as of Illy coffee and Mastrojanni Brunello fame.
There are few hard rules in matching wine and chocolate, but the following general principles will help you learn what you like, then focus your aim.
- Taste broadly. Don't limit yourself to planned matches or the familiar; happy matches can come from unexpected combinations. The more you taste the sharper your palate will become, and your brain may be inspired to make new connections.
- Drink sweet. Though there are exceptions, they are few. The most universally agreed-upon rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the chocolate. Dry wines will often turn sour or bitter with sweeter foods. (If you really want a table red, avoid those with herbaceous flavors and look for one that’s very fruity and high in alcohol, such as a jammy Zinfandel or Shiraz.)
- End sweet. Sugar is more persistent than dark chocolate, so if you’re tasting multiple combinations, taste sweeter chocolates and wines last.
- Match like to like. If there are nuts or nutty notes in the chocolate, find a wine that has them too (such as tawny Ports or oloroso or PX Sherries). Ditto fruity, sweet, floral and so on.
- But complements can also attract. Sometimes a fruity wine can provide flavors missing from a dry, earthy bar.
- The best odds for a good match are with fortified and solera wines, says Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman. “Their ripe flavors and full body from generous alcohol levels cut through the richness of the chocolate and find the appropriate 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.”
- Avoid the recent chocolate releases that are produced to match with wine, advises features editor Owen Dugan. “They're not very good by themselves, so who cares if they're better with wine? (They're not.) Would you want a wine that was made specifically to drink with a candy Easter egg?”
For more details on wine and chocolate pairing, read the full matchmaking article in our Feb. 28, 2015 issue.
Browse our complete archives of articles about chocolate here to find more on chocolate bars and confections worth trying, making your own chocolates and fudge, and much more.