So Easter is just around the corner, and chocolate, in all its forms will be dripping from the ceilings. Well, not literally. But it’s the one day of the year where a chocolate egg is completely acceptable for breakfast. So in light of my role as a wine taster, I am looking for the perfect combination of wine and chocolate together. Wine and chocolate are two of life’s greatest indulgences, and when paired together, they create a delectable, decadent experience. They both have flavanols, naturally occurring plant-based compounds that support healthy circulation. Both are fermented foods that have been around for centuries. Throughout history, cultures have regarded chocolate and wine as aphrodisiacs and used them as signs of wealth and influence.
However, similar to our beloved wine, not all chocolate is created equal, and pairing them correctly can be quite the challenge. In true detective form I sought out advice from Chocolate Sommelier, Shobitha Ramadasan, who has recently moved to Ireland from Paris.
The details she shared were fascinating. Unsurprisingly enough, chocolate mirrors wine in terms of quality of the raw product, skill of production, depth of flavour and the length of flavour also. Much like wine, it can be a minefield of understanding, so we hope to highlight a couple of points that may lead you to a better wine and chocolate experience.
To understand flavours, wine can be divided into several categories, including dry, sweet, sparkling, acidic, and tannic. Chocolate can also be categorized into different types, including milk, dark, white, and flavoured chocolates. When pairing wine and chocolate, it is important to match the intensity of the flavours. For example, a full-bodied red wine would pair well with a dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids, while a lighter, softer white wine would be better suited to a milk chocolate with a lower percentage of cocoa solids. And this sounds simple enough. However like wine, chocolate is often mass made and has overriding an sweetness that would kill the fruit of any wine. So quality is key. But how do we judge quality in chocolate?
Shobitha explained that the process is based upon six pillars of quality. Ingredients, aromas, snap, texture, complexity and aftertaste. High end chocolate will always name cocoa (or ‘cacao’) as the first ingredient. It may be listed as cacao beans, cacao mass or cacao liquor. Sugar should not be the first /primary ingredient or indeed additives such as palm oil, shea butter, vanillin (which is often artificial and cheap vanilla). Further to the ingredients, the aroma should be clean and distinct. Layers of fruits, spices or even pepper should pop, and not hidden by a dominant confected sweet aroma. The anomaly is good quality cacao itself smells nothing like chocolate. The process of fermentation and roasting actually draws out the familiar flavour we all love and know.
What I found most interesting was the discussion of the snap. This is basically the sound the chocolate makes when it is broken. The sound of a crisp snap is a sensorial expectation when tasting chocolate. This is as a result of the careful tempering of chocolate that ensures proper crystallisation for chocolate’s texture. Mostly is performed by machine these days, with a small number still hand tempering for that magic snap. The addition of nuts, olive oil or fudge etc can dissolve this sound naturally. Further adding to the texture of the chocolate is the mouthfeel. How quickly it melts. Some chocolates will start with a very slow melt before suddenly disappearing into a buttery silk. This is often down to high cacao butter content. There should be no sticky or ‘pasty’ sensation in the mouth, nor any unpleasant coating/residue on the tongue i.e we want a clean finish
The complexity of flavours in chocolate is also a sign of quality. Chocolatiers look for layers of flavours, similar to wine. These can range from fruits, to vegetal, herbal and dark natural sugars. Bitterness in chocolate can be a good thing. The polyphenols in dark chocolate mirror those in wine and these give both a somewhat bitter taste. It’s also the part of the chocolate that gives you all the health benefits! And finally the finish.Good chocolate will linger on the palate anywhere between a few minutes to a whopping ten minutes! Certain chocolates can stay in the mouth for much longer, but this is down to craftsmanship too. With all this being said, and exploring the similarities between chocolate and wine and how we asses them, it is now time to bring the conversation to pairings and what works and what does not.
It is imperative to consider elements such as matching sweetness levels, the tannins in wine, contrasting flavours and the weight of the wines. The wine should be at least as sweet as the chocolate to avoid creating an overpowering taste. Therefore most conventional chocolates on the market today are far too sweet for most of the commercial wines we drink. The reality is a bar of Cadburys Dairy Milk or maybe a Bounty bar would completely sour the fresh fruit flavours of a French Syrah, or a Spanish Rioja and so forth. Mass made chocolate like this with added sweeteners and confected flavours require a Port, or a glass of Sauternes. And realistically many of us are not sipping away on wine like this watching Netflix on a Friday evening. So artisan, handmade chocolate is a worthy partner to the commercial dry wines that the majority of us consume. The layers of flavours found in quality chocolate, combined with the texture and the clean finish resonate far better with a big glass of your average Bordeaux red or indeed a chilled glass of Chardonnay.
As Shobitha is the chocolate expert I asked her for some top class wine and chocolate pairings. And together we came up with these so I hope you get the chance to go forth and live your best wine and chocolate life.
Exploding Tree’s (Clonakilty) Goat’s Milk Bar : Shobitha suggested to pair chocolate made with goat’s or even sheep’s milk towards a Sauvignon Blanc like Sancerre. A Pouilly-Fume could work also, indeed any quality driven Loire Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with the tanginess of goats milk chocolate.
A fruity chocolate such as The Proper Chocolate Company (Dublin) Tanzania bar. Even better if you can get your hands on their version with Achill Salt. Salt not only brings out the flavours of cacao and mutes any bitterness, if at all, but many chocolate connoisseurs are fond of the way these salt-inclusion chocolates pair harmoniously with different wines. With the muted tones of bitterness giving rise to the fruits of the chocolate, this style would pair well with a fresh, but fruit driven red wine. Try a well-made Grenache from the Languedoc, or perhaps a Zweigelt from Austria. Soft, low tannins and plenty of ripe fruit to match the fruits of the chocolate.
Chocolate with strong citrus notes go well with sparkling wines and Prosecco. We can’t really call this specialty chocolate, it’s a bit of a hybrid really because they tend to use a fair bit of additives, but Hotel Chocolat makes a tasty white lemon bonbon which would go excellent with quality Spumante Prosecco, or a Cremant de Loire that has a zesty green apple palate to it.
Dark chocolate like a Bean & Goose bar is a little trickier as the level of tannins can vary greatly depending on how the maker has decided to work with the beans (eg the roast temp & time, grinding/refining duration). Try to look for a red wine which is less tannic than the chocolate to avoid killing the palate. Similar to the fruity chocolate, look for a softer red like a Malbec or a Southern Italian Primitivo.
And finally a milk chocolate bar from Skelligs Chocolate is best paired with a tawny Port or a Champagne. The sweetness of the tawny port will marry well with the creamy, smooth texture of the milk chocolate. Or else the tiny, persistent bubbles in a fine Champagne will cleanse the palate after a bite of the creamy, milky chocolate from Skelligs.