Wine & Chocolate - who
(November 4, 2008)
are two reasons why wine and food go so well together. The first
is that the pH of wine (the acidity) is similar to that of our stomach
acids that help to break down what we ingest. So wine aids in digesting
our meals. And second, wine tastes good and enhances the flavour
of food. That's if the wine has been well chosen to match the particular
We all grew up with the folk wisdom that red wine goes with meat
and white wine goes with fish. While that is broadly true, it does
not allow for the possibility of having white wine with meat if
the wine has sufficient body or red wine with fish if the red wine
is high in acid (cool climate reds like Ontario Pinot Noir with
salmon, for example).
In these times of skepticism, all the old rules are being constantly
challenged, it seems. Recently I was invited to bring along a bottle
of a red wine to a tasting to see if there were reds that would
go with oysters. Now the thought of red wine with oysters made my
stomach turn but I decided, for the sake of science, to give it
a go. I chose two red wines in my cellar with the most acidity I
could find: they were Anselmann St. Laurent Trocken 2003 from the
Pfalz and Lailey Pinot Noir 2004 from Ontario. There were fifteen
other people at the tasting, all of whom brought a variety of acidic
reds, including a Dolcetto d'Alba, a Blaufrankisch from Hungary,
a Juliénas from the Beaujolais region, an Ontario Gamay and a South
African Rosé. At the end of the evening, having devoured an unconscionable
quantity of four different varieties of oyster and tasted twenty-odd
wines along with them, I came to the conclusion that oysters and
red wine was a marriage heading into divorce. It was a fun evening
but we all had to admit that red wine with oysters is a bit of a
stretch. I was happy to try it once, but like garlic ice cream or
foie gras crème brûlée, once sampling is enough.
For me, chocolate is a food group. I keep a large bar of Lindt
milk chocolate in the fridge and break off a couple of squares a
day. I must have Swiss blood because the Swiss are the world's largest
consumers of chocolate – over two pounds per head a year, which
is not that much in my lexicon. And since wine is my consuming passion
I am interested to disprove what all the wine books say: avoid wine
if you're eating chocolate.
I recall a situation that happened in Italy some 25 years ago.
I was visiting the Serego Alighieri estate in Veneto, where Dante
lived for several years after he had been exiled from Verona in
the mid-14th century. Count Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri, a direct
descendant of the poet, invited another wine writer, Robert Black,
and me to have a glass of his Amarone as we sat in his elegant living
room furnished with antiques that made it look like a museum. Having
poured the wine the Count then proceeded to offer us After Eight
chocolate mints. Robert and I looked at each other silently wondering
if the Count was trying to test us. Should we refuse the chocolate
mint because the books say don't drink wine with chocolate or should
we accept our host's chocolate like good Canadians for fear of offending
him? We ate the chocolate and drank the wine – and it worked!
After this epiphany I began to look more seriously at combining
my two favorite things in the world. My resolve was strengthened
a few years later in Portugal where I was served a chocolate mousse
dessert at a port quinta (wine farm) in the Douro Valley which was
accompanied by a glass of lightly chilled Sandeman's 20-Year-Old
Tawny Port. I can still taste the combination.
As a rule of thumb, fortified sweet wines are your best choice
to go well with all kinds of chocolate: port, sweet or cream sherry
(look for the Pedro Ximenez grape, usually shortened to PX), the
sweeter Madeira styles of Bual and Malmsey, Marsala and the fortified
sweet wines of southern France (ironically called Vins Doux Naturels)
such as Banyuls, Maury and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. The Muscat
grape, when vinified as a sweet wine on the Greek island of Samos
or as Commanderia, the ancient fortified sweet wine of Cyprus, is
an excellent partner to chocolate. Orange Muscat is particularly
good and so too are fruit-based wines like Southbrook Winery's Framboise
When deciding what to match with chocolate, keep in mind two principles.
One, as with any kind of dessert, the wine should be sweeter than
the dish; otherwise, the wine will taste sour and acidic. And just
as there are different types of meat and fish that require a different
style of wine, so there are different types of chocolate.
White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, milk, vanilla,
lecithin (one of the compounds in egg yolks) and sugar; but since
it does not contain cocoa liquor it is not officially chocolate
even if it tastes good. It has a buttery, sweet flavour, not as
intense as either milk or dark chocolate. Because of its soft mouth
feel it goes well with sweet sherry or a frizzante (lightly sparkling)
wine made from the Muscat grape such as Muscato d'Asti.
Milk chocolate consists of at least 10 per cent chocolate
liquor, a minimum of 32 per cent cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin
and milk solids. It does not have the cocoa-like flavour of dark
chocolate but is rich, sweet and mellow on the tongue. Because of
its sweetness I would avoid all red wines under 14 per cent alcohol.
Fortified wines (listed above) go well with milk chocolate and so
do the sweetest of dessert wines, such as Canadian Icewine, particularly
Vidal, and Quady's Black and Orange Muscats from California.
Dark chocolate must contain a minimum of 40 per cent cocoa
butter and a 15 per cent concentration of chocolate liquor but it
does not contain milk solids. The taste is semi-sweet and drier
on the palate, especially those with high cacao content above 70
per cent. Because of its relative asperity, dark chocolate is the
easiest to match with red wines, but again these wines have to be
richly extracted. This means red wines from warm growing climates
such as California or Australia. California Zinfandel and Merlot
would work well and so would Australian Shiraz. From Europe, look
for Amarone, especially the sweeter version, Recioto della Valpolicella
and Primitivo from southern Italy.
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