Two years into my chocolate journey, I decided to learn the secrets to pairing wine with chocolate. Having no idea where to start, I brought my entire chocolate stash to Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery in Kennett Square one day, while the winemaker, Virginia Mitchell, poured all of the wine. After two hours of sipping, tasting, and dumping, we came up with very successful duos where the proverbial whole tasted better than the sum of its part.
Looking back on that afternoon, I realize our inexperience was a blessing in disguise. We approached pairings with an open mind, which made us consider unusual combinations, like a 100% dark chocolate with a dry red wine or milk chocolate with a white wine.
Since then, I’ve collaborated with sommeliers and winemakers, clubhouse managers and chefs to create successful, memorable wine and chocolate pairings. As I interacted with wine experts, I discovered their idea of matching wine with chocolate was sometimes regimented by a set of rules that didn’t seem to take the diversity of the chocolate world into consideration. For instance, some sommeliers are set on serving a sweet wine with chocolate. Others are convinced that white wine won’t go with chocolate. On the internet, I’ve shaken my head when a podcast host claimed “you can’t pair Champagne with chocolate!”.
The world of chocolate is vast and these rules are based on a limited exposure to fine chocolate. Granted, pairing wine and chocolate is tricky — a chocolate that goes well with a Merlot from a specific winery may not go with ALL the Merlots — so I understand the need to rely on some guidelines. After two years of leading my own wine & chocolate tastings, I’ve created my own set of rules which help me come up with the sweetest pairings. I’m sharing them here as I debunk five common myths on the topic.
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MYTH# 1: DRY RED WINES DON’T PAIR WITH DARK CHOCOLATE
This myth is widely spread in the wine industry, where experts claim the dark chocolate will clash with the tannins in red wine. Sure, a dark chocolate from the grocery store isn’t the best thing to nibble alongside a glass of red. However, I’ve had dozens of chance to debunk this myth.
The first step is to start with a dark chocolate with gently roasted, specialty grade cacao beans. Over-roasting will cause bitter compounds to develop (see this bean comparison post for an explicit visual), which will indeed clash with your red wine. OK, but where can one find these bars? Follow my rule and you’ll find out.
Rule #1: Skip the candy aisle and get some quality (and pricier) bars from a local coffee shop, specialty food store, or on a craft chocolate website like Bar & Cocoa or Caputo’s Market.
You can also email me at estelle(at)37chocolates.com for specific chocolate recommendations. I suggest starting with an approachable cacao origin like Madagascar. The cacao beans’ natural sweetness and berry notes make for crowd-pleasing, versatile bars. I’m partial to Fruition Chocolate Works’ Madagascar Sambirano 74% Dark Chocolate, which plays well against a medium-bodied Merlot. Give it a shot and tell me what you think.
MYTH #2: YOU SHOULD PAIR DARK CHOCOLATE WITH A SWEET WINE
Ask a wine expert to pick a bottle of wine to accompany a piece of dark chocolate and the odds are, they’ll choose a sweet wine. Depending on the budget, this could be a Madeira, Port, or Muscat. In France, the popular choice is Mas Amiel’s AOC Maury. Now, there’s nothing wrong about serving a dessert wine with chocolate — in fact, one of my favorite pairing is a 100% Madagascar dark chocolate with a Concord grape wine (!) — but you’ll be missing out on some delectable unions.
Rule #2: Not all dark chocolate is bitter, which means you don’t need to rely on the sweetness of a wine to balance its flavor out.
Another trick is to keep a stash of chocolate bars made with a high percentage of white cacao beans. Cacao beans are typically purple, which indicates the presence of tannins. Using that logic, I theorized that chocolate made with white beans lacked tannins, so they could go well with dry red wines and guess what? It works! OK, but how do you spot bars made with white beans? Look for the world “blanco” or “Porcelana” on the wrapper. “Piura Blanco” or “Gran Blanco” are usually a good sign — I have a soft spot for Qantu Chocolat’s 70% Gran Blanco, which I consider the little black dress of my chocolate tastings.
MYTH #3: (RED) WINE AND CHOCOLATE ARE A NATURAL PAIRING
I stumble upon this myth on social media, usually from people who’re interested in one of my upcoming events. “Wine and chocolate, how can you go wrong?!” While I appreciate the sentiment, the reality is you can go wrong bringing wine and chocolate together.
For one, the bitterness of a industrial dark chocolate will clash with dry red wine. Thankfully, the bars I feature at my events are not bitter. In fact, some don’t even taste like typical chocolate at all. These bars won’t clash with red wine but a strong bodied wine will overpower them.
Here’s an example. I once ordered a glass of Grenache at a restaurant. The wine was dry, full-bodied, with strong berry notes — it was delicious. I thought the fruitiness would be a perfect match for the jammy, French Broad Chocolate 71% India bar I carried in my purse that night. While both shared a flavor profile, the wine was too loud and took over the conversation, so to speak.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise because of my third rule.
Rule #3: Red wine and chocolate aren’t a natural pairing, but if you look for a chocolate with a body similar to the wine’s, you may find some delightful matches.
As such, a better companion for the Grenache would have been a bold dark chocolate with an 80% cacao content — think Castronovo Chocolate’s 80% Arhuaco Village or Åkesson Organic’s 100% Madagascar Criollo.
MYTH #4: WHITE WINE DOESN’T PAIR WELL WITH CHOCOLATE
I don’t know what the foundation of this myth is, but follow my next rule and you’ll be a white-wine-and-chocolate convert.
Rule #4: Pick a barely tannic dark chocolate like Amano Chocolate’s 70% Dos Rios dark chocolate or Qantu Chocolat’s 70% Gran Blanco to pair with white wine.
I love Dos Rios because of its unusual, delicate notes of bergamot and lavender, which play well against a floral white wine like a Spanish Albariño. As for Gran Blanco, it’s fantastic with Chardonnay. Other stronger, fruitier bars will work, too, and you’ll fall for the raisin notes of Wm. Chocolate’s 68% Belize Dark Chocolate with a crisp glass of Grüner Veltliner.
Alternatively, you could serve a crisp white wine with a rich, creamy dark chocolate. The wine helps cut through the richness of the chocolate, so you get a very balanced sensation in the mouth.
MYTH #5: CHAMPAGNE (OR SPARKLING WINE) DOESN’T PAIR WITH CHOCOLATE
First, a reminder that Champagne only refers to the sparkling wine originating from the region of Champagne in France! Cava isn’t Champagne and neither is Prosecco. With that settled, I know lots of people enamored with the idea of holding a glass of Champagne in one hand, and a piece of chocolate in the other. Add a sequin dress to the mix and you got a fantasy new year’s party.
Personally, I think Champagne is perfect on its own, so I don’t feel compelled to pair it with any food. If you reallllllly want to eat something with Champagne, consider making gougères, the light, airy puffs baked with Gruyère. That’s what the French would do.
But back to chocolate.
When the opportunity arose to experiment with Champagne last year, I jumped at it and had four empty flutes to show for it. Better yet, I discovered that bubbles and chocolate can be a match made in heaven.
Rule #5: Drink Champagne with white chocolate (YES IT IS REAL CHOCOLATE!!!) or a creamy dark milk chocolate.
The most memorable pairing that evening was a dry, slightly bitter Champagne with Violet Sky Chocolate’s Pine and Citrus bar. Oh, did that make my tongue sing! The irony is that the Champagne rep’ thought that bottle wouldn’t go with any chocolate. The magic there came from the bitter orange that bridged the Champagne’s bitterness with the intense dark chocolate. Swoon.
So yes, you can pair Champagne (and other sparkling wines, for that matter) with chocolate — sequin dress optional.
I hope I’ve convinced you that wine and chocolate do go together. As a chocolate sommelier, I found wine & chocolate tastings to be a fantastic way to introduce fine, craft chocolate (call it bean-to-bar, if you prefer) to a larger audience.
If you’d like to learn how I pitch, design, and lead an engaging chocolate lecture AND wine & chocolate pairing event, sign up for the video training I created for chocolate industry professionals. Use code “cheers” for 15% off the list price.
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