Matching chocolate with wines (and other drinks)

Chocolate has a reputation for being difficult to match with wine. It is sweet, rich in fat and has a distinctive taste that is hard to pin down exactly - sort of fruity, sort of spicy, a bit toasty, sometimes even vaguely meaty. On top of all that, virtually all chocolate contains a hint of vanilla. However, it has many special qualities that make it a favourite of chefs and diners alike. It melts at a temperature just below that of a healthy human body, for instance, which means you will always taste it at its best if you hold it in your mouth for a few seconds.

For me, chocolate's reputation for being hard to match is undeserved; it's just a matter of remembering those features that make you want to eat it in the first place. Let's start with its sweetness. Forget Champagne & chocolate truffles. The chocolate is so sweet that it'll make the Champagne taste drier and more acidic, and battery acid isn't the most romantic of drinks! Whenever you serve a wine with anything sweet, you need to choose one that is sweeter than the food. You'll do better, then, to put your Champagne aside for aperitif drinking and serve something rich and sweet with those truffles. Port would be excellent.

Image: Black Sheep Brewery
Next up, the fat content: you can balance this with good acidity, tannins or bitterness. This opens up all sorts of lovely possibilities. Rivesaltes is a wine we often link with salty cheese, but it works just as well with creamy chocolate dishes. Try it with ice cream, for instance, where its grape and apricot aromas will really shine. I like to have a lightly chilled, sweet Madeira with lighter chocolate dishes. It has a spiciness about it that works well with anything that contains nuts, dried fruit or cinnamon, so you can imagine how well it compliments Florentines or salted caramel chocolate cake. For a more unexpected match, try a small glass of porter or sweet stout. Remember that one of Nigella Lawson's most popular recipes is for a chocolate cake made with stout. Try matching it with the milk stout from the Black Sheep Brewery in North Yorkshire. If your dessert has a touch of citrus too, they make a Chocolate & Orange Stout. It's a match made in Masham!

Image: Harrogate Wines
Now let's consider the rich aroma and flavour that you get with chocolate dishes. You're going to need an accompanying drink that can hold its own. Fortunately, sweet wines come in a range of full flavours, from dried fruit (Tokaji or Malaga) to baked plums and cherries. These latter wines aren't always easy to find, but look out for wines from Banyuls in the south of France, red muscadel from South Africa or black muscat from California. The Beloved adores the combination of chocolate truffle dishes, such as tarte au chocolat  or the infamous fondant that has tripped up so many Masterchef contestants, with rich, sweet, red wine from Maury in France. We have several excellent, independent wine merchants nearby, so we are blessed with easy access to both Maury and Banyuls. If you're struggling to find them, a good tawny port is also a great match to chocolate, particularly if its a dish made with coffee.

Image: Buon Vino

Finally, I'd like to put in a good word for liqueurs. Many liqueurs make perfect companions for chocolate dishes. There are hazelnut, walnut and almond liqueurs, fruit ones, coffee ones and spice ones. Because our brains pay less attention to similarities of taste or aroma than they do differences, you can highlight a flavour in your dessert by serving a liqueur that is very different. So chocolate profiteroles will taste more chocolatey if you serve a glass of iced Frangelico with them; Black Forrest gâteau will taste deeply of cherries if you serve it with crème de cacao.

I'm grateful to the following, who have supplied images for this post and on whom I rely for my own chocolate matches. All of them offer UK delivery if you'd like to purchase from them.

Harrogate Wines

Buon Vino, Settle

Black Sheep Brewery, Masham

Next time: Tweaking the classics


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