This article was written for and originally appeared in the Top Chef for Foodies blogs sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. BravoTV/NBC Universal in their infinite wisdom saw fit to remove all references to it when I stopped writing for them.
As I was nearing the final draft deadline for my book, Discover Chocolate, my editors asked me to rethink the content of the fourth major chapter of the book. Originally it was going to be a section on the health benefits of chocolate but as we got closer and closer to finishing the rest of the book, that topic began to seem less and less appropriate.
Since probably forever there has been a connection in people's minds between chocolate and wine. From personal experience I knew that the conventional wisdom about pairing chocolate and wine (dark chocolate goes with red wine) was just about as useful as the advice about pairing wine and flesh (red wine goes with meat, white wine goes with fish). There are enough exceptions to that rule to fill a very large book.
So, the fourth chapter ended up being all about pairing various kinds of chocolates with various kinds of wines and spirits.
The first rule about pairing wine and chocolate is that there are no hard and fast rules.
Anyone who knows anything about wine can tell you that there is no one single flavor description for Syrah/Shiraz wines. Depending on where the grapes are grown, the weather in any particular year prior to harvest, and the individual sensibilities of the winemaker there are huge differences between wines that are produced from grapes grown just a few miles apart.
Similarly, anyone who knows anything about chocolate can tell you that there is no one single flavor description for chocolate made from Trinitario beans, or Porcelana. Extrapolating that to a general descriptor (e.g., dark chocolate) and a percentage cacao (e.g., 70%) is so vague as to be meaningless.
But that's just what some chocolate companies try to do. One very public example of this can be found online at the San Francisco Chocolate Factory (www.sfchocolate.com
). They produce something called "The Wine Lover's Collection." This set is comprised of six, 3.5oz tins of chocolate each matched with a particular style of wine. The 54% is said to be good with Ports (Which kind? Ruby? Tawny?) while the 72% should be paired with Zins. There are percentage matches between Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah - 31%, 38%, 55% [sic], 58%, and 61%.
These kinds of pairing recommendations are simply wrong in most cases.
One place I did not spend enough time thinking about was in pairing chocolate and beer; in fact I mentioned that I preferred to put the chocolate in chili and eat that with beer.
What, you say? Ick? Chocolate and beer? Well, then, you probably haven't tasted any good pairings. And neither had I, even though I had been thoroughly introduced to the concept by Pete Slosberg, the creator of Wicked Pete's Ale and the founder of Cocoa Pete's (www.cocoapetes.com
, currently undergoing renovation), a gourmet chocolate brand. Obviously, Pete sees the connection and in fact spends quite a bit of time promoting his chocolates at chocolate and beer tastings around the country, but especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.
SO, I was very intrigued when chocolate-maker Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate (www.askinosie.com
) sent me an e-mail asking me what I knew about a chocolate, cheese, and beer tasting event in NYC and whether or not he should try to get involved in it.
I contacted the organizers of the event, the New York City Degustation Advisory Team (www.nycdat.com
), to see if I could get myself a seat at the next tasting (I did), not really knowing what to expect.
NYCDAT founders Chris Cuzme and Mary Izett are both huge fans of and hugely knowledgeable about craft beers and have been parlaying that interest into a series of hugely fun tasting events at Jimmy's #43 (www.jimmysno43.com
) on Manhattan's lower east side.
Mary makes the case, very early on in her introduction to pairing, that because both chocolate and beer are made using ingredients that are roasted, it makes sense that they contain complementary flavors and aromas. Wines contain few if any of these compounds (and only if they are aged in wooden barrels that have been charred by fire) and for this, as well as many other reasons, it's harder to pair wines with chocolates than beers with chocolates.
Makes sense when you think about it that way, no? Furthermore, there is a preoccupation with pairing wines with solid chocolates and pairing beers with filled chocolates, especially when you add the dimension of the cheese opens up a broad panorama of taste possibilities. However, as both Mary and Chris point out, while it's fairly easy to find pairings that work with any combination of two elements, finding ones that work with all three is a challenge that requires much eating of chocolate and cheese and drinking beer.
Sounds tough - not.
I hosted a chocolate, cheese, and beer tasting for a group I organize on Meetup (chocolate.meetup.com/44/) that was attended by about 25 people; a mix of chocolate fans and beer fans with only a small handful that were both. The beers were all chosen from the selection at Jimmy's, the cheeses were provided by Saxelby Cheese Mongers in the Essex Street Market, and the truffles were provided by Roni-Sue, also in the Essex Street Market).
Perhaps the most interesting pairing of the evening was the combination of a seasonal Belgian beer - Winterkoninskske (Winter King) 8.3% alcohol by volume with a Mecox Bay Dairy (Long Island, New York) Sigit (made from raw cow's milk and aged a minimum of 18 months) with a dark chocolate truffle flavored with ginger.
The tasting notes say that this aged cheese, "has a unique taste characteristic of alpine-type cheeses." I don't know what this means really, but the cheese did have a sort of piney freshness to it. The Winter King beer is made with seven different types of malt and two types of hops with, "a pure, sugary flavor and a long, bitter aftertaste." All the hops in the beer, however, created for me a sort of resin-y scented aroma and taste and when the cheese and the beer were in the mouth at the same time, this sensation of piney, almost minty, freshness was quite pronounced. Crystallized ginger not only has heat but it has a sharp clear taste that magnified the sensation even more while the depth of the dark chocolate and the fat in the chocolate and cheese counterbalanced the bitterness of the beer and its alcoholic bite.
Other pairings included Rogue Brewery's Shakespeare Stout with a Pecan Pie truffle and a raw cow's milk blue cheese (Bayley Hazen) from Vermont's Jasper Hill Farm; Sam Smith's Taddy Porter with a Port and Fig truffle and a raw cow's milk cheese (Dorset) from Vermont's Consider Bardwell Farm; Original Sin Apple Cider with a Pistachio truffle and another Jasper Hill Farm raw cow's milk cheese (Constant Bliss).
Finally we did pair beers with straight dark chocolates. The most interesting pairing here was two beers (Troubador Obscura and Chimay Triple (Cinq Cents)) with Amano's Madagascar 70%. What was remarkable here was how vastly different the chocolate tasted with each of the beers and how the chocolate influenced the taste of the beers - which is to be expected but was nonetheless surprising.
Even thought most of the beers we tried were high-alcohol (over 8% by volume) this is still significantly less than most wines. So even though seven beers were poured during the tasting itself and we shared around of pale ale to start (to "calibrate our palates"), I was noticeably less affected than I would be if I was tasting with the same number of wines.
A word to the wise, however. As a general rule, when you pair beers with chocolates and cheese, you will want to stick with the darker, higher-alcohol beers. The three-two (3.2%) beer you can get in Utah, plus light and n-a beers are ones you should probably steer clear of. Stick to beers with a good deal of body and lots of taste (and calories), and you'll find pairing easier.
PS. IMO, the most versatile wine for pairing with chocolates I have found is the Italian sparkling wine, Prosecco. One of the reasons Prosecco works (and many Spanish Cavas, but not French Champagnes) is that it has a tendency to be less alcoholic and less sharp than Champagne and the texture of the bubbles tends to be very creamy. It is the creaminess of the texture of Prosecco, I am convinced, that is the key reason why it pairs so well with chocolate, which has a related textural quality in the mouth.