November 25, 2019

Chocolate & Wine: How to Plan a Perfect Match


Most people would agree that wine and chocolate make a great combination. However, some wines will go better with certain chocolates than others, and vice versa. This is because when paired appropriately, the qualities of both are individually enhanced.

A pairing session is a great way to explore the similarities and differences between different wines and chocolates, so you can discover how they complement each other. With qualities like astringency, acidity, sweetness, and bitterness present in both, you can highlight certain flavors and aromas through contrast and similarity. 

To refine your enjoyment of the two, here’s how you can match them at your next pairing session.

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A representation of the bean-to-bar process. Credit: Fernanda Quezada

Wine & Chocolate: Similarities & Differences

To better understand how wine and chocolate develop such complex flavors, it helps to examine how both are processed. Here, terroir and fermentation play a key role in defining their attributes.

Terroir is a term that describes the climate, soil, topography, and botanical diversity a plant was grown in. Information on a wine or chocolate’s terroir can be found on their labels. With chocolate, it will say ‘Single Origin’, or indicate that it was made in a specific area, by a specific producer. With wine, the label will list its harvest year, the valley where the grapes were harvested, where the vineyard was located, as well as where the wine was produced. 

Fermentation has an equally important role to play in shaping the taste of chocolate and wine. Research on wine flavor and aroma states that many of the aroma and flavor compounds found in the finished wine come not from the grape, but from compounds formed during metabolism of the wine yeast during alcoholic fermentation. When it comes to chocolate, research indicates that fermentation is considered a crucial processing step in which cacao flavor precursors are formed, and that fermentation time has been reported as a key factor in developing aroma compounds.

Both wine and chocolate require a similar level of attention in order to create a quality product. For insight into this, I spoke to Roberto Carrancá, co-founder of Tinta Tinto Viña Garage. Robert is an oenologist, which is an expert in managing and supervising the stages of wine production.

I was struck by the similarities between how wine and chocolate are processed. With both, meticulous work is required. Both involve processes that start with the farmers. In addition, both require time and patience for optimal results to be achieved.

You may also like Chocolate Pairings: Tips From a Fine Cacao Expert

Watching a presentation on the bean-to-bar process during a pairing session. Credit: Camilo Cáceres

Planning The Match

Now that you have a better understanding of how the flavors and aromas of wine and chocolate are shaped, you can start planning your potential pairings.

Think about the kind of chocolate and wine that you want to include. You can have a selection of dark, milk dark, milk, or white chocolate. Here, you’ll need to consider if you want chocolates with inclusions, which are ingredients added to enhance its flavor or visual appeal. Decide whether you want to include sweet, dry, white, or red wine. You might want to stick to a certain type, or try them all.

Origin will play a role in what kind of chocolate and wine you select. By examining the label of a bottle or bar, you’ll notice that certain areas tend to produce characteristic flavors or signature notes. For example, a chocolate from Peru could have fruity and floral notes, while one from Mexico may have earthy and woody notes. A Sauvignon Blanc might have fresh and fruity notes, while a Shiraz may have spicy, peppery notes. 

Depending on the characteristics of the wines and chocolates present, you can pair for similarity or contrast. For example, a 36% white caramel and salt chocolate would echo the toffee notes in a white, late harvest wine. On the other hand, berry notes in a Pinot Noir could be contrasted with a 77% cranberry, cacao nib, and nut chocolate. 

A table is ready for a pairing session. Credit: Pilar Cuneo

Questions to Ask Yourself

When pairing wine and chocolate, there’s an unlimited amount of combinations you could create. Thankfully, asking yourself a few questions will ensure your pairings are well-structured. Here are a few I’ve found to be helpful.

What Do I Start With?

For your first pairing session, I recommend starting with three or four different wines and chocolates. Any more than this, and you’ll confuse the flavors. 

Start with a light combination, such as a white wine with a white or milk chocolate. From there, you can progress to dark milk or dark chocolate with a high cacao percentage and inclusions. Avoid pairing two of the same flavors together if both are intense, as too much of one flavor can overwhelm the palate. Leave the sweetest wines for the end. 

When beginning your tasting, first taste and describe the chocolate, then the wine, and then both together. Next, start with the wine, then the chocolate, and then both together again. Finally, mix the two by waiting for the chocolate to melt on your tongue, and then swirling a little wine in your mouth. 

With this method, you can see what each one has to offer, individually and as part of a pair. 

A sensory descriptor table will help you describe what you taste. Credit: Fernanda Quezada 

How Do I Describe The Flavors & Aromas I’m Perceiving?

If you haven’t attended a pairing session before, it can be challenging describing exactly what you’re tasting, smelling, or experiencing. Don’t be hard on yourself if this happens, as you might not have the vocabulary for it. Professional sommeliers receive special sensory memory training, which allows them to effortlessly identify something, and articulate it verbally. 

To make things easier, avoid smoking a few hours before a pairing, and don’t wear any perfume. This will help you begin the session with a clear head.

Help yourself recall a range of aromas and flavors by creating a sensory descriptor table. This table will display various items associated with distinct smells and flavors that you can touch, smell, and taste. You can display spices (cinnamon, clove, black pepper), fruits (passion fruit, orange, berry), herbs (mint and rosemary), and flowers (rose, bergamot, jasmine). 

To make sure your perceptions are as accurate as possible, have palate cleansers on hand. While professional juries often use foods like polenta, you can use anything with a clean, neutral flavor. Opt for bread or crackers and make sure that fresh drinking water is on hand.

Have a pen and paper on hand to write down your impressions as they occur, as you’ll likely forget them if you wait until afterwards to do so.

How Do I Engage My Senses For The Best Possible Experience?

A pairing session works best when you engage all five of your senses, including smell, sight, sound, and touch – in addition to your sense of taste. 

Start by looking at what’s in front of you. A chocolate’s appearance will vary according to its cacao percentage and how it was produced. A glossy shine on the surface can indicate that it underwent a good tempering process. This means that it was slowly heated and cooled to a specific temperature to create a final finish that’s smooth, shiny, and free from crystallisation.

Other signs to look out for are dullness or white spots. This could indicate that the chocolate has been poorly tempered, improperly packaged, or exposed to extreme temperatures. 

The color of your wine will vary according to type, as well as intensity and opacity. Holding it up against a white background should indicate no murkiness or cloudiness present. The presence of either could indicate that the wine has been exposed to oxygen for too long or that an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria is present.

A shiny, smooth surface usually indicates a well-tempered chocolate.

Next, engage your sense of hearing. Pick up a piece of chocolate and snap it. A clean, sharp break might indicate that the chocolate has been tempered well, while cracking or crumbling might indicate poor tempering. 

When it comes to wine, you won’t engage your sense of hearing as much. However, you might find that you require a quiet space (free from ambient noise) to concentrate on what’s in front of you. 

You can’t taste a wine properly without engaging your sense of smell.

For a fuller tasting experience, smell is crucial. Both wine and chocolate have primary and secondary aromas. Primary aromas come from the grape variety’s aroma compounds, and are usually fruity, flowery, or herb scented. Examples of this can include apple, rose, and mint. Secondary aromas are derived from the fermentation process and tend to be scents with yeast or fungal undertones, such as sweat, aged cheese, and butter.

After cracking a chocolate, hold it close to your nose and inhale deeply, closing your eyes to concentrate on what you smell. Make a note of what aromas you pick up. 

A wine will need to ‘breathe’ for some time before you smell it so that its aromas and flavors can develop. Open each bottle an hour before your pairing session for this purpose. Once you’re ready to smell it, swirl your glass, place your nose in the glass, and inhale. Again, make a note of what you pick up.

A customer enjoys a piece of chocolate during a tasting session. Credit: Camilo Cáceres

Finally, we reach the tasting stage. To experience the complete flavor profile of your chocolate, place a piece of it on your tongue and let it slowly melt. Pay attention to qualities such as acidity, astringency, bitterness, as well as aftertaste. Mouthfeel is important here, for both your chocolate and wine. Some general descriptors that can help you to identify what you’re feeling are words like ‘smooth’, ‘coarse’, ‘dry’, or ‘sticky’.

Swirl your wine in its glass, to help it release more flavor compounds. Then take a small sip of your wine and roll it around in your mouth, feeling its weight and body on your tongue. Take a second sip, along with an inhalation of air. As with sipping, this will help its flavors and distinctive notes to develop. 

It’s time to capture your impressions. Before you do so, remember that you shouldn’t be thinking about whether a pairing personally appeals to you or not. For an impartial impression, think about if the wine and chocolate combination makes a good pairing, and if it doesn’t, why.

Final Advice 

Both chocolate and wine have attributes worth exploring, and being able to fully appreciate each one will require you to use all your senses in ways you haven’t used them before. 

With each pairing session, you’ll discover new combinations you like. And after each one, your ability to discern the most subtle tastes and aromas will approve.

Enjoyed this? Read Understanding Chocolate Flavour, Texture, & Astringency

Article written by Fernanda Schlack. Feature photo caption: A wine and chocolate pairing session. Feature photo credit: Camilo Cáceres.

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