Cocoa with Cabernet


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When it comes to choosing the perfect wine-and-chocolate combination, cocoa content is very important. it will determine the intensity of not only the dessert but the character of the wine that it is paired with. The higher the cocoa content the more bitterness that is associated with it.

I live a chocoholic. My partner loves dark chocolate so much that when she orders a chocolate dessert, I am not allowed even a taste. I know that if I want one, I must order my own. We are talking ice cream, gelato, chocolate mousse, soufflé—if it’s made of dark chocolate, I’m not going to get a taste. That notwithstanding, I still get my fair share of chocolate. It is one of the great unique flavors on the planet, along with truffles, vanilla, garlic and bacon—you get the picture. And yet it comes in so many different expressions and forms. What wine do you pair with chocolate? Despite what many drinkers think, it is not just Cabernet or Port that goes well with chocolate. There is so much more variety and it depends on three components. First, what is the cocoa content? Second how sweet is it? Lastly what other flavors come with it?

Cocoa content is very important. It will determine the intensity of not only the dessert but the character of the wine that it is paired with. The higher the cocoa content the more bitterness that is associated with it. When pairing the wine, adding bitterness to something already bitter is like asking if two “wrongs” make a “right.” By the way, is white chocolate even chocolate? Not in my book! But you can still have a great pairing with it. The sweetness of the chocolate is another huge component in determining the wine pairing. I believe that the wine should be as sweet if not sweeter than the dessert that it is paired with. There are a few exceptions, which I will mention one, but this rule holds true over 99 percent of the time. So, the sweeter the chocolate, the wine must also be sweeter. Conversely, the drier the chocolate, the drier the wine. And what other flavors accompany the chocolate are also very important. Nuts, fruit, herbs, flower extracts, breads and anything else that come with the chocolate influence the aromatics and flavors in the wine. I always look for a wine that has similar aromas and flavors as the other items that come with the chocolate. If it is roasted almonds, I look for nuttiness in a wine. If the chocolate has a Grand Marnier center I look for orange flavors in the wine.

For example, one of the first desserts I ever learned to make, and still one of my partner’s favorites, is dark chocolate mousse. Fluffed to lightness and not too sweet this is an easy dessert to impress. I like to use between 60-70 percent cocoa content so it is dark but not too bitter, especially with the butter and sugar blended in. The best pairing I have ever had with it is the Domaine de la Tour Vieille Banyuls. This is a fortified dessert wine from the southwest of France based on Grenache. Being only 16 percent alcohol, it is not as heavy as port and has these wonderful flavors of wild berries, spices, toffee and mocha. It is sweet but not cloying. The sweet- ness matches perfectly and the richness of the wine texturally embraces the mousse. It is even better with a touch of berry compote as a garnish. This wine also works really well with dark chocolate soufflé or flourless chocolate cake (à la Roy’s Restaurants).

Now if I added some Grand Marnier sauce to a dark chocolate soufflé, as mentioned I would look for a wine with some orange notes. This would change the wine dramatically and I would offer a decadent Sauternes. Sauternes is a region in Bordeaux, France home to the greatest dessert wine on the planet at Chéteau d’Yquem. I do not say this lightly but in terms of elegance, age-ability and class d’Yquem has no equal. When young the wine is full of fruit, glacée, apricots, tangerine, pear jam, figs, vanilla, spices and butter. As it ages, it develops notes of nuttiness, toffee, marzipan, orange flower water, créme brûlée and more. The notes of fruit would tie into the orange flavors of the Grand Marnier sauce-pure heaven.

And what if the chocolate is not sweet at all? Here is where using a drier wine is ideal. Some years ago, I did a food and wine pairing at Four Seasons Lana‘i. The dessert was a Vintage Hawaiian Dark Chocolate bar infused with blueberry. I paired a Lokoya Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon with it. The wine was reminiscent of dried blueberries alongside black berry, vanilla and spices. The wine was not sweet but the super-ripe fruit components in it helped to give a sense of sweetness, which was perfect for the drier dessert. This being the exception to the rule.

I love chocolate, too, just not as much as wine. And now you know how to pair both. The question is if my partner does not share her dessert, do I have to share my wine?

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