I was given the opportunity, earlier this week, to do the chocolate, wine, and beer pairings for a holiday party, co-sponsored by Valrhona, Fresh Direct, and Manhattan magazine, to which over 200 people were expected to attend.
There are always challenges with doing large scale events like this, but the major hurdle for this particular event was that I'd never tasted any of the wines that were going to be served and it had been a while since I'd tasted either of the beers. I don't like showing up at the venue an hour before things are scheduled to start and having to the pairings on the fly but that was the way it had to be and my only option was to take a deep dive and do my best.
The six chocolates being sampled all come from the Valrhona Grand Cru bar line - Tanariva (33% milk), Jivara (40% milk), Caraibe (66%), Alpaco (66%), Manjari (64%), and Abinao (85%).
A Short Aside
In case you don't already know, I happen to be a contrarian when it comes to wine and chocolate pairings. I find it easier to find really good pairings between whites with dark chocolates and reds with milk chocolates. More generally, I find that the cliché advice of red wine with meat, white wine with fish means you're unlikely to get real dud pairings. But because they're safe, you rarely get great pairings unless you really know what you're doing. By pairing outside the lines you're more likely to run into some real loser pairings but you're also more likely to run into really excellent surprises.
Because I was under the gun to do the pairings, starting out with the contrarian approach suited me just fine, and gave me an interesting angle to talk with the guests about - that a little bit of adventure is a good thing, and thinking outside the box can deliver some truly excellent experiences.
Tanariva - One of the two surprise pairing of the evening was the Tanariva with Brooklyn Brewery's Pennant Ale. This is an English Pale Ale, not an IPA, and has a warm yeasty/bready flavor - lots of roasty malt flavors with a nice soft bubble structure. These married very well with the sweet caramel notes of the Tanariva and created one of those rare situation where the pairing elevated both of the component parts. The paired wine was the 2009 Domaine Pelaquié Côtes-du-Rhône. This is a good mid-priced bottle that has definite bright acidity to it. This acidity made it unpleasant with all of the dark chocolates and the high milk fat content tamed the acidity.
Jivara - I also paired the Brooklyn Brewery Pennant Ale and the Côtes-du-Rhône with the Jivara. The beer pairing was not as sublime with the Jivara as the Tanariva because of the much darker flavor profile. However, the Jivara stood up to the Côtes-du-Rhône better than the Tanariva for the same reason.
Caraibe - The tasting notes on the Caraibe say balanced and voluptuous and it was this in mind that suggested pairing it with the 2009 Edmeades Zinfandel (California) after I got a chance to taste it - also a balanced, voluptuous Zin. This is definitely a go-to comfort pairing and just might be one of the all-around most pleasant red wine and dark chocolate pairings I've tasted in a long time.
Alpaco - The tasting notes on the box say floral and oaky and this made it a natural choice to at least try pairing with the 2010 Channing Daughters Scuttlehole Chardonnay (Long Island, NY). This chard is fermented in steel with no malo-lactic fermentation and there is no contact with oak. The wine is a straightforward expression of the fruit of the grape without any herbaceous or woodiness. The light floral notes of the chocolate accentuated the fruitiness while the oaky notes added a small hint of the wood we Americans have come to expect from Chardonnays, especially highly-rated Californian ones.
Manjari - This was the other really surprising winner pairing of the evening. The combination of Manjari - which is probably the best-known Valrhona chocolate in the professional kitchen - and the 2010 Salmon Run Riesling (Finger Lakes, NY) delivered the uncanny taste impression of a s'more … or at least the combination of graham cracker and chocolate. Astonishing. There is nothing about the typical Madagascan acidity or the light sweetness of the Riesling (a little too sweet for my taste, while I like Rieslings I prefer drier ones in part because it's hard to get people who say they don't like Rieslings to even try them during tastings - almost as hard as getting people who say they don't like milk chocolate to try milk chocolate) to suggest that the pairing of the two would lead to graham crackers. This pairing was a lot of fun and had people smiling.
Abinao - At 85%, this is a chocolate that even dark chocolate-lover sometimes have trouble with. Neither of the red wines came close to being a pleasant combination, the Chardonnay didn't have enough character, and the Riesling wasn't sweet enough. Thankfully, we had the Smith Woodhouse 10yr Tawny Port and the mellow silky sweetness of the Port blended tamed the Abinao very nicely. This would be a very good dessert pairing for following a meal where steak was the centerpiece and you didn't want something too rich - or too sweet - for dessert.
There were two other beverages poured, Brooklyn's Brewery's Dark Chocolate Stout, and the Althea Prosecco NV (Italy). Prosecco is my go to all-around favorite pairing wine, especially drier ones (although there are some stunning rosés). Proseccos have a tendency to be less sharp and alcoholic tasting than champagnes and also tend to have a softer, creamier bubble structure. This makes them excellent sparkling wines for general enjoyment. The best chocolate pairings were the Jivara, Caraibe, and Abinao. What to say about Dark Chocolate Stout but to say that it's a "no brainer" for most people when it comes to chocolate pairings. Overall, however, you want to pair a stout like this with chocolates that aren't particularly fruity or acidic. The Caraibe was the overall best pairing because of it's balanced flavor profile and luxurious mouth feel. The Jivara was next-best, but the Tanariva was just too sweet.
I consult to the organizer of the party, Ciao Imports, on their chocolate program. Valrhona is one of the brands they represent, and Fresh Direct is now offering over a dozen items from Valrhona including Grand Cru bars and selections from the home baking line. The wines were provided by Union Square Wines, who is the wine provider for Fresh Direct. The beers were provided by Brooklyn Brewery.