This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Over Easter your household may harbour rather more chocolate than usual. Some of it may even find its way into chocolate-based desserts. But can chocolate be paired with wine? Convention and most wine literature says not. I remember being rather horrified when, at the end of a picnic at one of the outdoor concerts for which the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley was famous, Margrit Mondavi served full-on chocolate brownies with their Reserve Pinot Noir.
I had been taught that sweet foods could be matched only with wines that are sweeter than they are themselves and, even though Mondavi Pinot was rather sweeter then than it is now, there was no way that it was sweeter than a brownie. I have long thought it one of life's mysteries incidentally that, although American menus are more chocolate-heavy than any other nation's, they include sweet wines only relatively rarely.
The strangest wine to serve with chocolate in my view is a bone-dry champagne. It usually tastes even drier and tarter with something as sweet as chocolate, yet there are many French tables at which champagne is regarded as the dessert wine of choice.
Like olive oil, cheese and coffee, chocolate has become the subject of intense study and connoisseurship in recent years. Precise percentages of cocoa beans and their provenance, working conditions of their harvesters, and make-up of the ganache are now studied as keenly as Master of Wine revision notes, so it is not surprising that a new level of sophistication has been brought to the business of matching wine and chocolate. Sarah Jane Evans is a Master of Wine who has made a speciality of this tricky combination, although even she points out that 'most wines are vile with chocolate and lots of chocolate is vile'.
The great majority of Easter eggs are made from materials that chocolate connoisseurs would not term chocolate. That greasy, sweet gunk that sticks top and bottom of the mouth together and has been the subject of so much discussion in Brussels is probably not a candidate for wine matching on any level.
But good-quality chocolate, the sort that costs a fortune, has been proliferating in myriad artfully designed boutiques, and leaves your mouth feeling stimulated and refreshed, certainly can be paired with wine – provided you choose carefully and feel that two self-indulgences at once are not one too many.
Roberto Bava of the eponymous Piemontese wine producer is also president of the Italian chocolate society, the Compagnia del Cioccolato, as well he might be being based so close to the chocolate capital of Turin. According to obsessive food and wine matcher Fiona Beckett of www.matchingfoodandwine.com, he has preached the gospel of a praline based on Piemontese hazelnuts (Piemonte is the home of Nutella) with a Bava Moscati d'Asti, very light (4.5%), grapey and slightly fizzy. He also recommends for tannic wines such as a Recioto, mixes of chocolate and fruit such as a chocolate covered fig, and acknowledges like many people that fortified sweet wines can go very well with chocolate since they are so much richer and more powerful than the chocolate.
For this reason, port and chocolate is widely acknowledged as a successful pairing. In fact it was by promoting this combination that Bartholomew Broadbent, an Englishman charged with selling Graham, Dow and Warre ports in the US, was really able to make a difference. 'I realised two things which differed from the British port market. Firstly there was no knowledge of port and therefore no preconceived ideas that you should only drink it when it was at least 15 years old. Secondly America's cuisine included chocolate desserts. The English had chocolate cake at tea time, Americans had it for pudding. So, I promoted young vintage port as the only wine to pair with chocolate. It took off to such an extent that America became the biggest market for vintage port and the 1985 was being consumed on release in 1987.'
Although I think it's a bit of waste of potential to open a vintage port (look out for the launch of the 2011s next month), designed to age slowly in bottle for decades (1963 would be my vintage of choice today), so early, I would strongly recommend a vigorous young, fruit-driven port such as a good vintage character or single quinta wine as a lovely partner for good-quality chocolate – whether eaten as is, as a mousse, or as a more complex dessert, perhaps one of those almost-cooked, molten, rich dark chocolate soufflés.
For a slightly lighter, creamier chocolate dish, I'd choose a strong, sweet wine that had been aged many years in barrel. A tawny port perhaps, or one of the Vins Doux Naturels from Roussillon about which I wrote recently in The archivist of Roussillon, a sweet sherry or PX, or – sweetest of all – one of Australia's old Muscats or Muscadelles from north-east Victoria, particularly Rutherglen. All of these wines would pass the test of being sweeter than chocolate with no trouble whatsoever.
I find it difficult to think of many unfortified sweet wines that are powerful enough to stand up to chocolate, however. Sauternes, Monbazillac, Vouvray Moelleux, Alsace Sélection de Grains Nobles, Tokaj, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese… These can all be absolutely wonderful, and it is hugely regrettable that they are not more popular than they are. But I don't think they make ideal companions for chocolate or chocolate-based desserts. Their high acidity, freshness and subtle flavours would be submerged by the weight and sweetness of chocolate.
Brix, cleverly named after the unit of grape ripeness most commonly used in its birthplace California, is supposedly a chocolate designed specifically to be eaten with wine – one of the more unlikely products to have come my way, or not since I could not find it in either San Francisco or Napa Valley.
There is one form of chocolate, however, that is perfectly happy with dry red table wines. Creative chefs all over the world seem increasingly to be using unsweetened chocolate in savoury dishes. Recently at Appellation restaurant in the Barossa Valley I was served a puree of bitter chocolate, black pudding and morels under a fillet of melting beef from a Wagyu Angus cross by Peter Gilmore, usually based at Quay in Sydney. Henschke's complex, full-bodied Hill of Grace 1996 and 2008 went beautifully with it with no sacrifice of subtlety.
Wines to drink with chocolate
Superior ruby port
Vintage character port
Superior cream sherry
Full, rich madeira
South African and Australian answers to port