Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching and you know what that means—wine and chocolate! My mother is half Swiss, but her chocoholic gene was inherited from her Norwegian mother. My father is Irish and Scottish—enough said. I know I’m really not addicted to either wine or chocolate because I only consume them when they’re readily available or can be acquired without resort to extreme measures. Being a fan of wine and chocolate, I’ve always had to fight the battle of the bulge. I was concerned when my doctor told me I was a candidate for syndrome X, until I learned that’s just another name for metabolic syndrome—the popular label for a loosely–defined combination of traits and conditions (essentially, overweight, over–sugared and under–exercised) that describe one in five people (maybe even one in four, and growing, in the USA) and can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes (the type you earn). It gets confusing, however, because the medical establishment also reports that wine (especially red wine) and some chocolate (especially dark chocolate) possess cardioprotective properties (antioxidants) and can reduce the possibility of a heart attack when consumed regularly in small amounts. So, what am I supposed to do?
Eliminate wine and chocolate from my diet? I don’t think so! In truth, I haven’t had much wine (and only a lot of little bites of chocolate) since the New Year’s holiday because I’m working on losing the weight I gained after we got back from Italy last June. I didn’t gain weight in Italy because we walked everywhere. When we got home, I continued to live like we were still in Italy, except for the walking everywhere part. By now, I’m well on my way to losing the excess pounds. But Valentine’s Day is around the corner, so I have a two–pronged strategy. First, lose the excess pounds ahead of time. Second, count every calorie and make every calorie count. Translation—consume only moderate amounts of the right combination of wine and chocolate!
Chocolate is an umbrella term for foods produced from tropical cacao tree seeds (usually called cacao beans) which grow in cacao pods (the fruit of the cacao tree) that turn bright colors as they ripen. Pure, unsweetened chocolate contains some combination of cacao solids (the cacao nonfat component, which provides flavor) and cacao butter (the cacao fat component, which provides texture and that melt–in–your–mouth feel), both of which count toward the cacao percentage stated on a chocolate label. So, the label’s cacao percentage doesn’t tell you the breakdown between cacao solids and cacao butter, which means that two products with the same cacao percentage can taste and feel very different. Sugar is added to chocolate products to make them sweeter, because unsweetened chocolate has a bitter taste (hence the terms bittersweet, semisweet and sweet). In fact, the word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocolatl” meaning “bitter water”.
In simple terms, there are three types of chocolate—dark, milk and white. Yet,white chocolate isn’t really considered “chocolate” in the USA because it contains cacao butter (at least 20%), sugar (55% or less), milk solids (at least 14%) and milk fats (at least 3.5%), but no cacao solids (which are required in some minimum percentage to be called “chocolate” in most countries). If the chocolate product contains milk products, it is milk chocolate; otherwise, it’s dark chocolate. It can get confusing because some producers are playing around with something they call “dark milk chocolate”, which is milk chocolate with a cacao percentage higher than normal for milk chocolate. One important note: milk chocolate tends to have a caramel taste aspect.
I’ve done a lot of research on wine and chocolate, but only recently came across something new (to me) that made a lot of sense. Many wine–chocolate pairing references start with a rigid rule—pair chocolate with a wine that is sweeter than the chocolate. It was only on the website of Chuao Chocolatier that I found the most thoughtful analysis of the subject. According to Chuao Chocolatier (pronounced “chew-wow”), the key isn’t to have a wine sweeter than the chocolate or vice versa, but rather to keep the “distance” between the sweetness levels of the wine and the chocolate short. If the chocolate is much sweeter than the wine, it enhances the bitter aspects of the wine. Conversely, if the wine is much sweeter than the chocolate, your taste buds get saturated and you won’t enjoy the complexities of the chocolate flavors. I was intrigued, so I contacted Master Chef & Chocolatier Michael Antonorsi, who co–owns Chuao Chocolatier with his brother, Richard.
What does Chuao mean? “Chuao is a legendary cacao growing region in Venezuela. Chuao Chocolatier was named in honor of the region to symbolize the company’s dedication to quality and to pay homage to the Venezuelan heritage of my brother and me.” What makes Venezuelan chocolate special? “Venezuelan cacao is considered the finest cacao in the world. Really, cacao grown in the northern area of South America up into part of Central America. Criollo beans are the most refined, delicate, low–yield cacao beans, but with a lively acidity and fruit forwardness. The forastero bean, which originated in the northern basin of the Amazon River in Brazil, is more robust, less delicate, and resistant to bugs, so it has a higher yield. That heartier bean was brought over to Africa, where it became industrialized into massive production using cheaper labor, so it is the most widely–known bean flavor in the world. The trinitario bean, which originated in Trinidad, is like a hybrid of the other two beans—some delicacy and some robustness. Nearly 85% of the beans produced today are forasteros, about 15% are trinitarios and only 1–2% are criollos. There are sub–varieties of these beans. At the turn of the 19th century, Venezuela was one of the world’s largest exporters of cacao; now it is a very small percentage. If you check the label on a lot of high–end European chocolate, it will tell you the cacao is Venezuelan.”
Do you pair a wine based on the cacao percent in the chocolate? “That is difficult because the cacao percent doesn’t tell you the breakdown between the cacao solids and the cacao butter, which will affect the flavor and texture of the chocolate. Nor does it tell you the amount of sugar content, which affects sweetness. It is better to approach it from the type of chocolate—dark, milk or white. For example, dark chocolate pairs better with red wines while milk chocolate pairs better with Champagnes and white wines. As soon as you add milk to make milk chocolate, it makes the chocolate caramelly.”
A lot of sources on this subject say that the wine should be sweeter than the chocolate. Is that true? “I don’t believe in that. Normally, the chocolate is sweeter than the wine. If the wine is so sweet, why bother with the chocolate; you get to the point of palate saturation. Even port wine I don’t think is much sweeter than a chocolate. You don’t eat chocolate with liqueurs like Grand Marnier. It’s too overpowering. Dessert wines are the no–brainer to pair with chocolate because normally they have some residual sugar so the distance is quite short compared to the chocolate. By contrast, if you have a very dry wine, you have a huge distance between the two and you have a conflict in your palate.”
Michael continued, “For pairing milk chocolate with Champagne, Demi–Sec and Rosé Champagnes work best, but if you only have Brut Champagne, you could add créme de cassis to make a Kir Royal and then the added sweetness and fruit of the drink will work with the milk chocolate. Sweet Rieslings and ice wines work well, but oaky Chardonnays are overpowering and don’t pair well with milk chocolate. Some Chardonnays that undergo malolactic fermentation and have a buttery, caramelly flavor could work. It is difficult to generalize based just on the wine varietal. It’s best to choose a fruit–forward wine with some residual sugar.”
How about dark chocolates? “Zinfandels with high residual sugar work. Tannins in wine are not chocolate friendly because they are astringent and dry. Yet, low–tannin, fruit–forward Merlots work. Also, soft–tannin Cabernets, if the chocolate has spice or earthy herbal notes in it. Ports are tricky, too. Tawny ports are good because of their sherry–type aspect. You get more spices and angles of connection with different types of confections. The vintage ports usually have bigger tannins, but the ones that are more one–sided in fruit can work well, especially with a simple, very dark chocolate because the fruit will come from the wine. The Italian Vin Santos and Reciotos are also very good chocolate pairing wines. You really have to try the particular chocolate to tell its characteristics, much as with the particular wine. Only then can you tell what will work best.”