Sarah Cyr, a sommelier and former co-owner of The Wine Cellar & Bistro, a onetime Columbia restaurant, is an expert on all things vino. Here is her take on pairing wine with chocolate.
If you browse the web for wine and chocolate pairing ideas, you will get a wide variety of suggestions and opinions. To explore how well chocolate pairs with wine, first you should recognize a bad pairing versus a good pairing. For example, we have all had the eye opening, bad pairing experience of brushing our teeth to then take a shocking swig of orange juice. The toothpaste, minty and sweet, makes the orange juice taste dry, sour and terrible.
Chocolate, because of its’ high sugar content, can also sour the taste of your wine. Dry red wines will taste more dry and astringent once you have a bite of chocolate (or anything sweet). Good pairings allow both the food and the wine to show their best qualities. The food should highlight the beautiful flavors and textures of the wine, and the wine should cleanse your palate, make your mouth water and spark desire for another bite.
Thinking of Valentine’s Day, I gathered some love-inspired chocolate favorites: dark chocolate-covered strawberries, dark chocolate torte and milk chocolate truffles. I selected four red varietals that show big fruit flavors in the glass: a California blend (Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon), a California Zinfandel, an Italian Primitivo, and a Malbec from Argentina. And for fun, I picked a couple bottles of sparkling wine that I got a hold of for the holidays — two different sparkling Lambruscos (with great color, quality, flavor and value). One was dry and light pink, while the other had more residual sugar, more fruit flavors and was a beautiful dark red color. Both you serve chilled.
Before tasting, first a note for all of you bubble-loving folks: Sorry, champagne is not a good pairing with chocolate! If you want to drink champagne, or a light, dry bubbly with your sweetheart, go with a cheese and fruit appetizer plate, make cheese fondue to share or start your romantic day with a champagne brunch. The yeasty notes in true champagne are especially good with eggs, crème fraîche, smoked fish and nutty cheeses.
In order determine the best wine-chocolate pairings, my wine-drinking buddy and I “speed tasted” tiny samples of each wine with each chocolate. (Just like real-life speed dating only better… plenty of opportunities to fall in love but without any chance of heartbreak!) We were careful to taste and familiarize ourselves with all the wines before consuming any chocolate.
The results? The California red blend did not work at all. The oak tannins in the wine conflicted with the natural tannins in the dark chocolate, leaving the wine bitter and sour. The milk chocolate fared better (cream pairs with soft, vanilla, toasty notes of an oaky wine).
But overall, I would not recommend a cabernet or merlot as a good pairing with chocolate. The Malbec, like the Cab blend, needed a much more meaty, savory pairing and did not pair well with any of the three chocolate bites. The Italian Primitivo did not pair well either. The rustic earthy notes of the wine were lost, the fruit was lost and the wine tasted bad.
The California Zinfandel, however, was a star. This dry, but jammy red has very little oak tannins to conflict with the natural tannins in dark chocolate and with the torte it mimicked a juicy black raspberry sauce that might be drizzled over the top. The Zinfandel wasn’t a perfect match with the milk chocolate but was definitely drinkable, as a dry, slightly sour, but still juicy red.
Now on to the bubblies… the dry sparkling Lambrusco was not great with the dark chocolate or the dark chocolate-covered strawberries, which made the already dry bubbly even drier. But to our surprise, it worked with the milk chocolate. The subtle, strawberry notes of the Lambrusco tasted like a light, but dry, strawberry soda once paired with the milk chocolate truffles and was quite refreshing.
And finally, here is cupid’s arrow, the perfect match, some true, food-wine love. If you have already experienced a delicious ruby port with chocolate then it will be no surprise that the wine with more residual sugar ignited the best pairing. The sweeter, dark red, and bubbly Lambrusco was vibrant with all three chocolate bites.
The bubbles prevented the wine from feeling syrupy or heavy on your tongue and it was so delicious with the chocolate-covered strawberry that the wine tasted even refreshing and even more complex. And with the dark chocolate torte and milk chocolate truffles, it tasted like an artisan blackberry sparkling cream soda. So good!
Ok wine lovers, with or without chocolate, (and with or without a partner), plan a great date for yourself this month with a beautiful wine. Because in my opinion, if “life is a box of chocolates,” then love is a bottle of wine.
Robert Sinskey POV Red Blend, California
Catena Malbec, Argentina
Steele Zinfandel, California
Tormaresca Primitivo, Italy
Cleto Chiaril Lambrusco Vecchia Modena, Italy (light pink)
Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Grasparossa, Italy (dark red).