Okay, so, apparently, there’s a thing called Valentine’s Day that’s around the corner? Something to do with chocolate?
Actually, according to lots of people (in particular, PR persons), Valentine’s has to do with matching wine and chocolate. More specifically, red wine and chocolate. By which people generally mean dry red wine.
I’m not in your mouth, people, so I can’t tell what’s going on in there, but personally, I think dry red wine and chocolate is, generally speaking, one of the worst possible food and wine matches. And it’s not just a matter of personal taste.
The problem has to do with the sweetness in the chocolate vs the dryness of the wine. While it can be perfectly good to have a drink that shows some sweetness with a dish that isn’t sweet (I really like sauternes over a roast chicken, for instance), the reverse is a lot more difficult to do.
Sugar in the wrong place
Why? Well, have you ever had a piece of fruit – say, an orange – after having a really sweet dessert? All you taste is the acid in the fruit, right? Very simply put, that’s because the sugar that coats your mouth masks the more limited amount of sugar present in the fruit, so that only the acid shows up. In the same way, a red wine that seems unctuous and juicy on its own may well feel overly dry, tannic and acidic, if you sip it over something sweet.
So that big chocolate truffle is probably going to kill that Barossa shiraz you were told to match it with, even though the cocoa, roasted flavors from the heavy-toast barrels may find some aromatic harmony with the chocolatey aromas. At the very least, it’s going to make it a lot less expressive and engaging.
Exceptions to every rule
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. But they generally have to do with what is in the chocolate, rather than with the chocolate itself. For instance, I was surprised to enjoy a piece of dark chocolate bark loaded with dried cherries, along with a nebbiolo from the Langhe, a few months ago.
Two things were at work behind that good match. One, the chocolate was a dark one, not very sweet, which minimized that effect of smothering the perceived sweetness of the wine. Two, the dried cherries appealed to one of the central aromatic components of nebbiolo, a grape that is famous for its tart or dried cherry flavors. And on top of that, the dried cherries delivered some acid that balanced the sweetness, allowing a better continuity with the high acid grape.
I’ll bet you the nebbiolo would have tasted even better with plain dried cherries, though…
Another example is a spicy chocolate, infused with pink peppercorns or hot chili. There, it is the spiciness that is at work, reacting to the spicy notes in grenache or syrah, for example. As I’m writing this, I’m having some with an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon with a hot chili chocolate from Lindt, and it’s not bad. The tannins do seem a bit drier, but the spiciness works well on the finish. (With a classic, sweet chocolate truffle, however, the wine feels acidic and bitter – ugh!)
Another possibility that could make the match work is the fact that some supposedly dry red wines are actually quite sweet, with levels of residual sugar that would be defined in, say, a German riesling, as actually off dry. But if that’s the case, why not go straight to dessert wines?
Stickies and spirits
Port wine or the sweet reds of Roussillon (Maury and Banyuls), or even a Greek sweet wine like mavrodaphne from Patras are classic matches with chocolate – with good reason. Sweeter versions of madeira or sherry are also great pairings. Even the caramel tones of an ice wine or a trockenbeerenauslese could do. Certainly better than a big, tannic malbec or cabernet sauvignon.
Yesterday, when I tweeted my exasperation about the return of the wine-and-chocolate-is-awesome noise that comes with the nearing of V-Day as inevitably as the wine-for-the-turkey pieces come back around Thanksgiving, I got some interesting tweets back from a Kansas City bartender and restaurant owner called Ryan Maybee. He pointed to whiskey and cognac as being an even better match, especially with rich chocolates. I could certainly see a great match with a chocolate coated caramel, for instance… And I’d be willing to give his other suggestion – mezcal with spiced chocolates – a go as well.
With so many good options around, why would you want to test the limits and pair your chocolate with something that is not so well-suited, like dry reds?
After all, isn’t Valentine’s Day supposed to be all about perfect matches?