The heavy sigh is heard all the way via cell phone from Cortemilia, Italy, to Columbia, South Carolina, when Chef John Militello, owner of Let’s Cook Columbia, realizes this interview for an article is about pairing chocolate and wine.
In the middle of guiding his annual food and wine tour group to the Piedmont region of Italy, his tone brightens immediately as he asks, “Guess where I am and who I am with?”
Having had the opportunity to travel with Chef John’s tour to Piedmont, Italy, where I spent a week enjoying the hospitality, teaching, and food of Chef Carlo Zarri of Cortemilia, I knew the deferring of the interview to Chef Carlo was a bonus in what became a joint discussion on pairing chocolate and wine. Chef Carlo, professional sommelier and owner of Hotel San Carlo, spends a good deal of time in the United States, including Columbia, while entertaining and treating hundreds of “foodies” across the nation to his Hazelnut and Truffle Tour. Special projects he undertook included the role of food and beverage manager for Casa Italia at the Salt Lake City, Athens, Turin, Whistler Olympic Games, and other world sporting events. At the Turin Games, he also served as the food and beverage advisor to the XX Winter Olympic Games organizing committee.
Chef Carlo affirms the sigh of Chef John, and succinctly sums it up by stating, “It is extremely difficult, almost impossible to pair wine and chocolate.”
Chef Brian Hay, professional sommelier and director of culinary and wine at The McCutchen House at USC, has a similar reaction but explains, “The goal of a wine and chocolate pairing is to couple a specific wine with a specific chocolate, and the key is to make both better. In other words, the flavor profile of both the wine and the chocolate needs to be elevated due to one being introduced with the other.”
So, why hesitate about pairing two such wonderful gastronomical pleasures as chocolate and wine when they seem to be the best pairing since Romeo and Juliet? Opposites attract, so the adage goes, but not when pairing a wine and a food that have nothing in common. To be clear on one thing: this discussion is about chocolate — not chocolate desserts, just chocolate.
According to The True History of Chocolate, “Chocolate contains more than 500 identified chemical substances. The complete DNA sequence of the plant was determined in 2010 by two laboratories backed by the arch-rivals Mars and Hershey’s.” Grapes, like cocoa beans, are chemically complex, but what a cocoa bean and a grape do have in common is that both are farmed products that require fermentation and many more steps before the end product is reached. “Chemistry, physiology, and biology are all involved in pairing,” Chef Brian says.
Cocoa is very bitter and acidic, and the depth of other flavor profiles in the chocolate depends on where the cacao has been grown and the length of the fermentation process of the beans. Cacao is the bean from the cacao pod that, once fermented then dried, becomes what North Americans call the cocoa bean. Grapes tend to be sweet and acidic, but will also pick up the flavors of the terroir in which they are grown, as well as the flavors from the barrel in which they are aged, whether it is oak, scotch, bourbon, or other alcohol.
No commonality in the growing regions or other natural surrounding flora gives grapes or cocoa a similar taste profile. Cacao can only be grown 20 degrees north or south of the equator. The climate is hot and very humid, the soils rich in the compost of tropical fruit and flowers, and an overhead canopy of larger trees provides shade to the Theobrama Cacao trees. The “mere de cacao,” or mother trees, are the tall trees at the top of the canopy (such as banana trees) protecting the cacao trees from getting too much sun.
Grapes, on the other hand, thrive in open terrains allowing abundant sunshine. Loam soils of silt, clay and sand, and much drier, cooler air are where vineyards thrive. The top grape producing areas in the world are in Europe, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and California. The top cacao producing areas in the world are the Ivory Coast of Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Indonesia, Brazil, and Ecuador. The terroirs of cacao and grapes have very little in common. Therefore, nothing in the flavor profiles of either gives a professional a starting point from which to begin a pairing. Taste imbalance seems to stem from the different types of tannins found in wine and chocolate; therefore, what ends up on the taste buds of your tongue is an unfortunate clash rather than a poetic moment of heightened flavor sensation.
Back to pairing. How to make a bite of chocolate better by a sip of wine, and how to make a sip of wine better with a bite of chocolate? First, be familiar with the flavor profiles of both the wine and the chocolate. Labels on wine and chocolate often let the consumer know what to expect. Also be aware that 50 percent or more of a cocoa bean is cocoa butter. Keeping this in mind, Chef Carlo explains, “When your mouth is invaded by chocolate, you need a fortified wine to clean the mouth.” Chef Brian adds, “Fortified wines have more richness and more sugar.” Thus, the wine needs to be as sweet as the chocolate.
“Big reds like cabernets tend to not work well with chocolate due to the high tannin content,” says Chef Brian, “and neither do Old World earthier wines. So, the go-to’s for a red wine and dark chocolate pairing may be ruby ports that contain strong but not overpowering tannins. Both tawny and ruby ports work well. Look for a sweeter red that contains flavor profiles with red raspberry and strawberry characters that work wonderfully with dark chocolate.” Chef Brian also says, “Dark chocolate works better with red wine than milk chocolate.”
The idea is to balance the weight of both. How dark is the chocolate, and how full bodied is the wine? For those lovers of dry red wines that are more full bodied with moderate tannins and contain more forward flavors of black fruit like dark cherry or black raspberry, Chef Brian recommends, “Skip the plain chocolate and pair this with chocolate truffles, tortes, or cake.”
Chef Carlo just happens to reside in Cortemilia, located in the Piedmont region of Italy, which produces a great selection of wines that work with chocolate. “There are two to three special wines that pair well with chocolate,” he explains. “These are late harvest wines. Late harvest wines lose about 50 percent of their water and become higher in alcohol content, which makes them denser, giving them more body.” Chef Carlo proudly notes that the Barolo Chinato, which only comes from the Piedmont region, is one of the best choices. “The Barolo Chinato is aged in big oak barrels with herbs found in this region.” It is literally a Barolo wine infused with chinchona (China Calissaja and Succirubra barks), along with many regional herbs, and thus its name, Barolo Chinato.
As far as sparkling wines go, both Chef Brian and Chef Carlo agree that these sweeter wines work well with chocolate desserts. Chef Brian says, “Sparkling wines and chocolate work because of the acids in sparkling wines that help strip the palette clean of the fat (cocoa butter) of the chocolate. Truffles with champagne are perfect.” He adds, “Hess winery makes specific truffles to go with their wines, so it is always the last stop on the tours that I guide to Napa!” Chef Carlo, in the amore of Italian cuisine, highly recommends hazelnut cake with Moscato D’asti.
Craig Locascio, director of learning and development at Breakthru Beverage, helps Chef Brian with the wine pairing dinners that are offered throughout the year at The McCutchen House at USC. These are open to the public, but require online registration at McCuthchenHouse.com. These dinners never disappoint. Craig, a certified wine educator, suggests chocolate pairings with Fizz 56 Brachetto Spumante, a sparkling red from Piedmont, Italy, and Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2004, from Portugal, among others on his list of recommendations.
From a professional chocolatier’s stand-point, forget all about the chemistry and just enjoy! Columbia is fortunate to have all kinds of chocolate pairings available in so many different venues, whether the chocolate is paired with wine, beer, or tea. Chocolatier Joseph Vernon, owner of Evolution Through Chocolate, sells out all of his chocolate pairing events around the state.
“You have to consider your market and what the consumer likes,” says Joseph. “There are so many wines and so many chocolates that to overthink it and couch it in terms of an analysis of chemistry and physiologies is drumming the pleasure right out of the experience. Plus, everyone’s taste palette is different, and most people would not agree that the wine selection is so restrictive when it comes to pairing with chocolate.”
Christina Miles, owner of Bruges Chocolaterie, has also spent years in the food industry. In accordance with Joseph, Christina says that she enjoys having customers taste a bite of chocolate on the front of the tongue, a piece on the back of the tongue, and then compare the different flavors detected. She also loves being a part of wine and chocolate pairings around the city. “Most of my customers don’t really like sweet wines,” she says, “so I enjoy creating chocolates with a flavor profile that pair well with the wines the host chooses to use. I am careful not to overpower my chocolates with added flavors because I want the chocolate flavor to come through, but it is exciting to pull together flavor profiles from the different regions of the wine and the chocolate.”
Chef Brian’s closing advice on chocolate and wine pairings is, “Play with it. If you get it wrong, you’ve lost nothing. Learn from it. Just see it as a work in progress.” That seems to be the story of life.
After 27 years in sales, Harriet Rice began the study of cacao while researching a startup business in the food industry. After completing a chocolatier course and a “making chocolate from the bean” class, she realized how limited the chocolate selection was for professional use in South Carolina. Thus, the idea of becoming a manufacturers rep as a wholesale chocolate distributor emerged into Crescent Cacao, LLC.