Friday, February 19, 2010

Wine and Chocolate: Heavenly Pairings

Chocolates are gifts for all seasons, but most especially on Valentine’s Day, particularly those heart-shaped boxes. In fact there’d be a worldwide recession among chocolatiers if it wasn’t for Valentine’s Day. But now that box of chocolates that mimics life according to Forrest Gump, and been hanging around since last Sunday, needs a little help. That’s where the wine comes in.

Pairing wine and chocolate
Who was the first to pair wine and chocolate? If we consider the history of that beloved confection, we only have to go back to the 19th century. In 1828, Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten was the first to press cocoa butter from chocolate liquor which led to the creation of cocoa powder. Twenty years later he combined cocoa butter and sugar to chocolate liquor, and chocolate as we know it had arrived.

It couldn’t have been too long after that date that some wine lover paired the two, but it’s only been in the last few decades that the wine industry has discovered the wonderful leverage of offering chocolate with their wines in tasting rooms. Here’s a word of warning; most full-bodied and many medium-bodied red wines will pair with chocolate like symbiotic twins, but that doesn’t help evaluate the wine, and may prop up some weak performers.

The astringency and sweetness of many chocolates will also impact the palate, making further sampling difficult. If it's the last tasting of the day, though, I'd go for it. Otherwise, save these pairings for home. After all, you have to get through that box somehow, so why not make a game out of it. Set up a pairing party and invite your friends to bring their favorite wine. You only have to provide the chocolate. There’s a good chance that even the “bad” pairings will be good.

The Chocolate Continuum
Just as most wines have their own unique flavor profile, so do chocolates. The percentage of cacao, the amount of milk, if any, and other additives shape the flavor and also influence the pairings. In New Mexico, with our passion for all things pepper-based, we get a potent hit from indulging in chile-infused truffles.

The texture of the candy is analogous to mouth feel in wine, except more sensual. The visual appeal is another factor in judging the pairing, as is the attack, mid-palate and finish of the candy. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. One advantage of chocolates: you don’t have to swirl to pick up the heady aroma of Belguim dark chocolate.

Here is where one challenge comes in; how do you deal with the other ingredients? Caramel, fruit fillings, coconut, nuts of every type all add their own spin to the mix. What wine goes best with caramel, for example? And does temperature play a role as it does with wine? Do you need to get that sticky stuff off your teeth before indulging in another pairing?

Does raspberry filling affect a wine that exudes blackberry notes? Will the coconut flavors imparted by the oak aging of wine pair well or badly with its counterpoint in the box? How many pairings can you indulge before your palate screams; enough!

Wines for Chocolate
You probably thought this would all be so easy. Actually it is far more complex than even I thought. If you don’t think so, check here and here for fascinating information and charts from The Nibble website. The site defines many terms used to describe chocolate, some also being analogous to wine. The origin of the cacao beans, how the beans are prepared, and the percentage of cacao used in each chocolate, factor in the taste. And that’s even before we add the fillings. So many variables suggest at least a perusal of The Nibble pairing chart, which is very extensive and illuminating.

The wine choices they recommend include most red wines, some white wines, liqueurs, ports, Sherries, and other fortified wines, late harvest and dessert wines, cognac/Armagnac, and whiskey. These are paired to everything from bittersweet (70% cacao) chocolates to white chocolate, and various filled chocolates and truffles.

The only thing I can add to the list is late harvest Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, which are definitely in the minority to late harvest Zinfandel, but softer and mellower. I’d suggest trying them with a wide variety of chocolates. Wine and cheese and wine and chocolate are naturals, but still require proper matching to bring out the best in both. And did I mention the health benefits of both wine and chocolate? What are you waiting for? Salut!

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