Wine and Chocolate Pairings…with Cheese, of Course
Do chocolate and wine go together? You bet they do! Learn how to host an incredible chocolate and wine pairing party…and don’t forget the cheese!
Pairing wine and chocolate is a pretty appealing proposition. After all, wine and chocolate are much beloved…often by the same people. They’re great fun for the holidays, they have a certain romantic je ne sais quoi, and they’re good for you (in moderation, of course). So with all of that in common, wine and chocolate should be a match made in heaven. But are they?
Do Chocolate and Wine Go Together?
Well, as it is with many relationships, it’s complicated. You’ve heard the old phrase, “opposites attract”? That’s a big part of why wine and chocolate pairings aren’t always successful, and can leave a bitter taste in your mouth…literally. It’s a case of having too much in common.
The real relationship wrecker here is a group of chemical compounds called polyphenols, which, ironically, are the things in chocolate and wine that are actually good for you. Polyphenols have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other anti-bad guy properties that make the foods containing them good guys (again, in moderation). There are many, many polyphenols in the plant world; the ones in cacao (cocoa/chocolate) are mostly flavonoids, while the ones in grapes (wine) are mostly tannins. And they have one thing in common besides coming from the same class of chemicals: they taste bitter.
When we say a wine is “dry”, we mean the opposite of sweet, not wet. (All wine is wet.) The drier the wine, the less residual sugar it contains. But red wines in particular can be dry in another manner, as the tannins from the grape skins are not only bitter, but astringent.
Likewise, the darker a piece of chocolate is, the more bitter it will be due to the higher cacao content (and less sugar to cut the bitterness). Your love of dark chocolate will hinge completely on your tolerance of bitterness. Many people prefer a sweet, rich milk chocolate over a bitter, 85% cacao dark chocolate…just as a lot of folks will gladly turn down a dry cabernet in favor of a sweet moscato. So how do you match these seemingly star-crossed lovers?
Pairing Wine and Chocolate
The main thing to remember is to not double up on the polyphenols. Don’t pair a bittersweet dark chocolate with a big, tannic cabernet sauvignon or malbec, or your tongue will shrivel up like a raisin. And forget about the brut Champagne; the acidity will ruin nearly any chocolate. Here are a few guidelines to help keep your palate—and your guests—happy:
Stick with sweet. This is the simplest option. A wine that’s slightly sweeter than the chocolate will be more successful. There are some excellent late-harvest white wines (like ice wine) and sweet red blends that won’t clash, but the real winners are the fortified wines like port, sherry and Madeira. A favorite of many sommeliers is Banyuls, a fortified wine made from grenache grapes in southern France. If you really want the bubbly, go with a Champagne doux or Moscato d’Asti (a higher-end Asti spumante).
Match intensities. If you’re really not into sweet wines, try this: pair lighter chocolates with lighter-bodied wines, and stronger chocolates with more full-bodied wines. For example, if you’re serving milk chocolate or a chocolate truffle with a ganache center, try a light-bodied pinot noir or even a fruit-forward merlot. Pair a dark, bittersweet chocolate with a jammy syrah—especially an Australian shiraz—or an intense zinfandel. Most sommeliers will warn you to stay away from the highly tannic cabernets and petite syrahs (a different, more tannic grape than syrah/shiraz), but others have paired them successfully. Tastes, after all, do vary.
Here are some basic recommendations for pairing wines with different chocolates:
- White chocolate: Ice wines, late-harvest rieslings, moscato, cream sherry
- Milk chocolate: Pinot noir, merlot, port, Madeira
- Dark chocolate: Zinfandel, syrah/shiraz, port, sherry
If your chocolate has other ingredients (nuts, toffee, etc.), match those ingredients with notes in the wine. For example, match caramel or toffee with port, sherry, or dessert wines; complement nuts with a nutty sherry or tawny port; and if your chocolate has mint, feel free to break out a dry red like cabernet sauvignon or petite syrah.
Chocolate and Wine Pairing Party
When you’re planning a chocolate and wine pairing party, decide which chocolates you want to showcase, then pick your wines from the list above. You’ll find you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to budget; for example, if you’re pairing wine with white chocolate, ice wines (made from grapes that have literally frozen on the vine, concentrating their sugars) can be very expensive, while moscatos are very popular and economical.
If you’re simply serving some chocolates as a dessert course at the end of a dinner and would rather just serve one wine, you really can’t go wrong with a nice sweeter sherry; it will go with virtually any chocolate you can throw at it.
Next, think about the order in which you serve your wine and chocolate pairings. When tasting wine, you want to go from light-bodied to full-bodied wines, and/or dry to sweet (which usually works out the same). However, with chocolate you should taste from light to dark: white to milk to dark. This is because the bitter flavonoids (remember those?) will increase as the chocolate gets darker, and darker chocolates will ruin your palate for the lighter samples. If your chocolates are flavored or filled, just go by the color of the chocolate coating.
Now, you may notice that this presents something of a challenge: what if a sweeter wine goes with the lighter chocolate and a drier one goes with the dark chocolate? Do you go by the wine or the chocolate? We told you it could be complicated…but there’s a third food that acts as a buffer between wine and chocolate and can pull it all together and enhance the experience:
Wine, Chocolate…and Cheese!
By now you know that wine and cheese are a match made in heaven; we’ve written much on the subject of wine and cheese pairings. And we’ve also touched on the relatively recent trend of cheese pairing with chocolate. Cheese is a natural with both wine and chocolate, and the main reason is that its richness and creaminess are the perfect foil for those problematic, yet healthy, polyphenols we mentioned.
So, combining what we’ve learned about pairing cheese with both wine and chocolate, we can come up with some solid recommendations for matching the three.
- White chocolate is excellent with riesling (especially a sweet one), and riesling loves Swiss cheese.
- Milk chocolate goes great with port, and port is perfect with sharp Cheddar.
- Dark chocolate loves zinfandel, and they both are in love with blue cheese.
Actually, dark chocolate and blue cheese are both perfect with port, too. The possibilities are nearly endless, so you’re sure to find chocolates, wines and cheeses to suit your taste and the tastes of varied guests. If you look for common allies between cheeses and chocolates, you can cut down on your wine budget and offer only a couple, or even one (in which case we’d bet on a good port).