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Five Reasons Chocolate Rarely Pairs with Wine, and Five Tips for Those Determined to Do It

On Feb. 14, everyone wants to drink wine with chocolate. Experts help us understand why it’s not such a great idea.


Valenza Chocolatier offers bonbons and other confections, including these special Valentine’s treats. Photo courtesy of Valenza Chocolatier
 

It’s Valentine’s Day, so most of us are dying to unwrap a huge box of See’s chocolates and pour an oversized glass of Napa cabernet while we snuggle on the couch watching a rom-com. Wine and chocolate definitely set the scene for romance. But do they really go together?


Troll the internet and you’ll see it’s a love-hate relationship. We’re paraphrasing here but the naysayers are over it: “Wine doesn’t go with chocolate. Please stop trying!” Meanwhile the wine and chocolate lovers laud their favorites: “Sangiovese and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups! That’s my match made in heaven.”


What’s going on? Well, some of it is a seasonal marketing blitz rolled out each year by vintners and chocolatiers. Pair two bliss experiences and sell more of each product. 


But most of it is a complete misunderstanding of fine chocolate, which contains many of the same characteristics as wine. 


  • Tannins: that bitter flavor of over-brewed tea

  • Sugar: adds sweetness

  • Acidity: tart flavors that make you pucker 

  • Aromatics: smells that range from dirt and cedar to fruit, flowers and spice


Those similarities actually set the stage for the clash of the flavor titans. Especially when you keep in mind that chocolate ranges widely in flavor and texture, according to its composition. 


For example, a labeling of  70% on a dark chocolate bar refers to its cacao (cocoa bean) content. The rest is sugar, milk solids, vanilla and other ingredients that can enhance its flavor and make it sweeter or more buttery. Milk chocolate only has to have a minimum of 10 percent cacao; that’s why it looks and tastes very different from dark chocolate. 


So, what’s a foodie to do?


We turned to wine and chocolate experts for some answers. First, we’ll introduce you to the gurus. They’ll explain why pairing is tough then offer tips on how to make it easier. 


Even if you think you know a lot about both subjects, listen carefully. The insights of these pundits might make your date night a whole lot sweeter. 


MEET THE EXPERTS

Naushad Huda. Photo courtesy of I Like This Grape.
Naushad Huda

Huda lives in Coto de Caza and is the founder of “I Like This Grape,” a website that publishes wine country guides and hosts the VinoPop tasting series. He has provided customer experience, marketing and product strategies for brands such as T-Mobile, Yamaha, Microsoft and The Irvine Company.


Julie Lim. Photo courtesy of Julie Lim
Julie Lim

USC Law School graduate Lim was named one of OC Metro’s Top 20 Women to Watch for her work in transforming liquor stores into upscale wine shops. She’s the owner and founder of three OC Wine Mart and Deli locations. 


Amy Jo Pedone

After a successful career in commercial real estate finance, Pedone founded Valenza Chocolatier, offering award-winning handmade bonbons, bars and other confections that reflect her Italian heritage. 


Richard Tango-Lowy

A flavor guru, Tango-Lowy teaches classes at Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver. At Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, he sources small plantation and artisan chocolate for his bonbons and confections. 


Pam Williams. Photo courtesy of Pam Williams
Pam Williams

Williams opened au Chocolat, a fine chocolate business, in 1981 and was the shop’s chocolatier for 10 years. In 2003, she founded Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts. Her book, “Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate,” written with Jim Eber, provides a comprehensive look at the industry today.



WHY IT’S DIFFICULT TO PAIR WINE WITH CHOCOLATE

1. It’s always a fight. 

“Sweet on sweet, tannin on tannin. It just clashes,” Huda says. “Like each of 'em is fighting for a space in your mouth and in your mind – and neither are winning.” 


So, if the fruitiness and the tannins of the reds make it tough, what about a white wine like a sauvignon blanc? Not so fast, says Huda, because white wines can be tart and that doesn’t pair with the sweetness of chocolate. “There's always a fight: an acid fight, a tannin fight and a sugar fight,” he said.


2. Chocolate has three times the aromatics of wine.

“You have to be very careful,” says flavor expert Tango-Lowy. “When you're pairing wine with food, you have to pick the right wine depending on the characteristics they're playing off. Is the food rich? Does it have some acidity? What kinds of flavors do you have, and fats and other things you're working with? You want to pair your wine for that. And that's lovely.” 


Chocolate's a little trickier. “Chocolate actually has about three times the aromatic, organic molecules as red wine,” he says. “So it is more complex. And the opportunities for it to clash are really high.”


3. Most tasters aren’t specific about what they’re pairing. 

“You have to dive into the wine tasting notes,” says local chocolatier Pedone. “If it's got berry influences, what are those berries? If it has some spices, what are those spices? Define the notes of the wine and pair the chocolate that way. I have bonbons. So, they have some sort of flavor profile in addition to the flavor profile of my chocolate. Now, if you're pairing solid chocolates, you have to understand the tasting notes of those chocolates, and their underlying makeup to pair correctly with the wine.”


Temperature should also be considered because white wines are served cooler than reds. “Cocoa butter and chocolate melts at our body temperature,” Pedone says. “So, when you're cooling your mouth with a white wine or a prosecco or Champagne, and you're eating a piece of dark chocolate that doesn't have a higher fat content, that chocolate's going to be hard to bite. And that’s not going to be pleasant.”


4. Chocolate fans need to grow up.

“Coffee, beer and wine are all things that you consume and develop an appreciation for later in life, as an adult,” says Williams on the Ecole Chocolat website. 


“Chocolate on the other hand is something that most of us grow up eating as part of our childhood,” Williams says. “By the time we reach adulthood, we already have a solid relationship with chocolate and ‘It’s just fine, thank you very much.’ We have to get (consumers of fine chocolate) to think about chocolate in a whole new way – yes, we know you love M&M’s, Hershey’s Kisses, Cadbury Dairy Milk …  because you grew up eating that chocolate.” 


In short, it’s much more complicated than your childhood impressions. Williams says artisanal chocolate has an expansive profile that’s a symphony compared to a one-note  grocery store milk chocolate bar.


5. Chocolate isn’t taken as seriously as wine. 

“As far as the tasting notes and the nuances, I would say there's a huge range in terms of quality for chocolate,” says Lim, owner and founder of OC Wine Mart. “You can get really high-quality artisanal chocolate, which would open up a lot of possibilities, and I think that would be mind-blowing or life changing for some people.”


TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL PAIRINGS

1. Start tasting at 11 a.m.

“I always tell people 11 o'clock is really a good time,” says Williams. “It's far enough away from breakfast. And you haven't had lunch yet. So, your palate could be relatively clean. Now, if you're a huge coffee drinker, that could be a problem.” 


She’s referring to a cardinal rule to eschew coffee before tasting because it tends to obliterate many other aromas and flavors.


2. Drink your dry wine first, then pair dessert wine with chocolate. 

“If the chocolate is too sweet, then it actually will bring out the acidity in the wine, which will start to taste tart or sour,” says Lim. A big no-no would be a milk chocolate or a white chocolate (which technically isn’t chocolate) with dry wine. “Any kind of very sweet chocolate with dry wine? That would not be suitable.”


3. Know your chocolate and take time to savor it.

It’s not universal that bold wines always suit dark chocolate, says Pedone. That’s because not all dark chocolates are the same. “Some dark that you can find in the grocery store, there's probably milk fat in it. So then that would be more of a neutral dark that would go with your average red table wine,” she said. She wouldn’t pair that with a big cabernet.


Pedone works with sommeliers, collaborating on chocolate and wine tastings, and she has other recommendations. 


“I really like pinot noirs with traditional salted caramel chocolates, that’s a pretty safe pairing. Put the salt side down on your tongue before you bite it,” Pedone says.


In her opinion, the salt seems to balance the sweetness. She wouldn’t rule out trying Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, with its salty filling, and sangiovese without giving it a whirl because it’s all about balance.


Another pairing Pedone enjoys is port with her cucidati truffles, which are based on the flavors you’ll find in the traditional Italian cookies with the same name. “The cucidati truffle has fig, raisin, candied orange peel, honey, allspice and cinnamon-infused 63% dark chocolate – but it's a ganache, so it's very buttery,” she says. “And ports are nice with that.”


4. Pick a wine that doesn’t assault your palate. 

Don’t automatically reach for a great big cabernet or syrah, says Tango-Lowy. Consider food-friendly wines, especially European wines from the Rhone, Italy or Spain. “You can go with some tempranillo,” Tango-Lowy says. “If you're playing with slightly rounder, easy wines, pinot noir is going to work if it's a nice pinot. Stay with well-behaved, easy-going wines, not too acidic, not too astringent, not too dry. They’ll be a little friendlier towards some of the fat in the chocolate.”


5. Create a bite that’s exquisitely tailored to the wine. 

It would be well worth your while to read the vintner’s tasting notes and then prepare a chocolate dessert to fit that bottle, says Huda. 


“The most successful chocolate and wine pairing I've ever had was last summer with Kelli White, who is the director of education at The Wine Center at Meadowood,” Huda said. “I think she paired it with a merlot. To me, she is the only one who successfully paired chocolate and wine because the chocolate was very specific. It was a dark, chocolatey kind of truffle thing that Meadowood made as a special dessert that went with this wine. It wasn't forced. It was a very intentional pairing.”


EXPLORE WITH THE EXPERTS

I Like This Grape: To get details on the Drive Through wine book series, VinoPop tasting events and more, visit ilikethisgrape.com


Ecole Chocolat: Considering a career as a chocolatier? Serious hobbyist? Take online classes with the pros. Or maybe you’d like to take a chocolate field trip to Costa Rica or attend a workshop in France? Visit ecolechocolat.com


OC Wine Mart: Join the wine club, attend events and tastings, shop for premium bottles and grab a bite at the deli. OC Wine Mart has three locations, each will host a wine and chocolate tasting with Justin Winery this month. Tastings begin at 6 p.m. in Yorba Linda (Feb. 22) Orange (Feb. 24) and Aliso Viejo (Feb. 29).


The lineup of wines includes JNSQ Rose, Justin Cabernet, Justin Justification, Justin Isosceles and Justin Savant. Cost is $49  plus tax; $44 for Wine Club Members. RSVP: Space is extremely limited, reserve by purchasing tickets online. ocwinemart.com


Dancing Lion Chocolate: Shop online for bars, bonbons and artistic sculptures, sign up for the newsletter and take classes. dancinglion.us


Valenza Chocolatier: Pedone offers event planning and chocolate workshops. She also sells bonbons and other confections. Valenza’s chocolates change seasonally, but for wine pairings ask about The Fig. It’s a confection made by stuffing a calimyrna fig with a roasted almond and a sliver of lemon peel, then enrobing it in 63% dark chocolate. That pairs nicely with a tawny port. She also makes a Barolo bonbon with a Barolo wine pâte de fruit layer and a 61% dark chocolate ganache layer, encased in 61% dark chocolate. In one tasting she paired it with Borgogno Serio & Battista Barolo Chinato from Piedmont Italy. Visit valenzachocolatier.com


FINE CHOCOLATE IN ORANGE COUNTY

Bella Sophia Chocolates

Small batch bonbons, truffles, enrobed fruit, bars and other goodies. Located in Pacific City Mall. 21058 Pacific Coast Highway, Unit M120, Huntington Beach, 714-906-9011, bellasophiachocolates.com


The Chocolate Soldier

Turtles, truffles, toffee and molded chocolates in seashell, dolphin and starfish shapes. Chocolate Soldier also makes American favorites such as peanut butter cups, rocky road and blondie treats with rice crisps. 34513 Golden Lantern, Dana Point 949-493-4135 and 1200 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-4462, thechocolatesoldier.com


Cocoa Parlor

Specializes in organic vegan chocolates with truffles, dark and milk chocolate bars, quinoa bars, bark and hot chocolate mixes. 31161 Niguel Road, Laguna Niguel, 949-877-9549, cocoaparlor.com


Läderach

Swiss chocolates with bars, pralines, truffles, vegan and seasonal items. Located at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 949-594-2280, laderach.com


LaRue du Chocolat

Chocolate strawberries, seasonal confections, molded chocolates and more. 448 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-2372, larueduchocolat.com


Royce

An international chain, Royce sells confections made in Hokkaido, Japan offering chocolate-covered potato chips, cookies, soft “nama” chocolates, green tea chocolates and more. Located in Mitsuwa Marketplace, 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-966-8482, roycechocolate.com


Valenza Chocolatier

Italian-themed bonbons, truffles and other confections sport colorful, artistic designs. The most popular items are chocolate-covered cherries and caramel turtles. Pedone offers event planning and chocolate workshops. Seasonal pop-ups, shop online or make an appointment to visit the Cioccolato Lab at the Hood Kitchen Space at 350 Clinton St., Costa Mesa, 949-891-1206. valenzachocolatier.com


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