Ignore the snobs – you can and should pair wine with chocolate

We should think of chocolate not as the most difficult wine pairing, but the most personal, says Dave McIntyre. Here are just a few suggestions based on my own experience

Monday 13 February 2023 12:00 GMT
The notion of matching wine to chocolate often elicits strong reactions
The notion of matching wine to chocolate often elicits strong reactions (Getty/iStock)

Chocolate is the third rail of food-wine pairings. The notion of matching wine to chocolate elicits strong reactions, beginning with categorical statements that the two don’t belong together.

But then someone will mention an exception, and someone else will remember a dinner long ago when the mood was right and the wine and chocolate sang an unexpected love song as a coda to a perfect evening.

Perhaps we should think of chocolate not as the most difficult wine pairing, but the most personal.

To get a sense of the emotions involved, I put the question to social media. Mind you, my online friends are mostly dedicated wine lovers, many of them in the trade making or selling wine.

They came up with pretty esoteric pairings, including banyuls, a sweet fortified wine from southwestern France, as well as vin santo from Italy.

Port was another favourite, both ruby and aged tawny. Cognac, creamy stouts and bourbon were mentioned by the anti-wine faction.

Some were particular about not just the wine but also the cacao percentage in the chocolate. And several simply replied “No!” One fellow writer opined: “There are a lot of things the world doesn’t need, and another piece… on wine and chocolate is one of those things.” Oh well.

Interestingly, my friends who don’t dedicate an inordinate amount of their lives to wine were refreshingly sanguine about the question, enjoying chocolate with whatever wine happens to be on hand. They may be onto something.

What makes chocolate a difficult partner for wine? Cocoa butter can coat your palate and skew other flavours, an exception perhaps to the recognised rule that fat cuts tannin. Meanwhile, chocolate’s acidity can make wine taste harsh.

A general maxim is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. But really good chocolate is bitter as well as sweet, further complicating the match.

Chocolate is not monotone: gourmet bars are enhanced with all sorts of ingredients, including fruit, nuts, salt, chillies, lavender and even bacon. Each of those flavourings suggests a wine, sort of a dessert corollary to the idea of pairing wine to the sauce rather than the protein.

This point was driven home to me in a tasting I wrote about a few years ago, when I spent a happy hour sampling various gourmet chocolates with numerous zinfandels. Zin can work because it has raspberry and cranberry notes that bring out fruity flavours in chocolate.

And we don’t always eat chocolate as candy. Cakes, brownies, cookies, pies and other yummies abound. They may include nuts, fruits or spices, and we may eat them with ice cream or a fruit sauce. The variations are limitless. So how can we categorically say chocolate doesn’t go with wine?

So here are a few suggestions to explore, based on my own experience and the advice of my social media friends.

That open bottle

First, try your chocolate dessert with whatever unfinished wine you had with dinner. This is where the knives come out among wine nerds.

Best bets are fruity reds, such as a bright zinfandel or a juicy Australian shiraz. Whites are tricky, though Jake Busching, winemaker at Hark Vineyards in Virginia, swears by petit manseng for its combination of fruit and acid.

If leftover wine doesn’t work, set it aside and enjoy your dessert. But if you’re up for a little wine adventure, try the following.

Fortified wine

Ruby port’s unctuous texture and flavour suggest chocolate. Don’t go for an expensive vintage port – they are dessert by themselves. An inexpensive ruby such as Fonseca Bin 27 (about £16 at Majestic) or Graham’s Six Grapes (about £16.50 at Flagship) pair nicely with cakes, brownies and cookies, even a more intense piece of chocolate.

If roasted nuts are involved, think of a tawny or a madeira. Penfolds Club Tawny from Australia is a terrific bargain around £12, or you could splurge on an aged tawny. Tawnies last a few weeks after opening, moderating the cost a bit (Madeira lasts forever). This is also a good time to break out those port-style stickies you picked up on your visits to local wineries.

Sparkling wine

While I’ve inveighed here about categorical statements against chocolate and wine, I will repeat my favourite maxim that “bubbles go with everything”. Champagne – especially demi-sec, if you can find it – is fantastic with chocolate-covered strawberries (in which the berries are the star).

The most ideal wine with chocolate desserts may be brachetto d’acqui, an effervescent, slightly sweet red bubbly from northern Italy. The most ubiquitous brand is Banfi Rosa Regale, but your local wine merchant may have some others as well. These are delicious with any chocolate dessert that features raspberries or cherries. The fruit acts as a bridge between the wine and chocolate.

Moscato d’Asti, a sweet fizzy white that tastes of orange blossoms, is another possibility.

Tasting party

For kicks and giggles, have friends each bring a bottle of wine and a chocolate dessert, and decide for yourselves whether they belong together. Just keep the knives for the desserts, not the debate.

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