Pairings: Chocolate with Wine?
By Juan Carlos Flores, Executive Sommelier, Pueblo Bonito Hotels Resorts & Spas
Before Spanish Ships landed in America, cacao beans were already being used as currency to trade for other products in the area that today is known as Mexico. Mayans and Aztecs also used cacao beans to make a special beverage that only the most important governors were allowed to drink. The Mayans called this cold energizing beverage Xocoatl, which is the origin of the name chocolate.
For me, as a Mexican citizen, it is an honor to write an article about pairing chocolate with different beverages. Although some stories say that chocolate originated in South America, many others indicate that Mexico was the birthplace and cradle of the entire chocolate industry. And of course this article was also a pleasure, since to research it in depth required tasting innumerable samples of chocolates and wine.
Some of my friends participated in the "hard work" of tasting, and I told them that to play the game we first needed to know the rules and do some preliminary practice. So we first researched information about the differences in chocolates, their characteristics and how they might react to the elements in different beverages. Then we started playing and reaching our own conclusions. Before discussing the results of these experiences, I would like to share some enlightening information that will make it clearer and more fun when we begin discussing tastings.
Chocolate is the culmination of transforming the beans obtained from the cocoa pod, which is the fruit that grows on the branches of the cocoa tree. Only one flower out of three hundred turns into this magnificent fruit. Inside this fruit is a white pulp that is fermented in wood boxes with a capacity of 5,000 kilograms for two to seven days, depending on the individual species of the cocoa tree. During fermentation some of this pulp is transformed into alcohol, and as in any other fermentation, temperature increases. This allows the chemistry to begin forming the molecules for the future aromas and start turning the beans into their characteristic dark color. Once the fermentation is complete, it is stopped by drying the beans, outside if weather permits, or through an artificial method of blowing warm dry air through them without giving a toasted aroma.
At this point the beans are ready to be transported around the world. When they arrive at their destination, they are roasted for ten to thirty minutes, turning constantly in a temperature between 120 and 140 degrees Celsius. This is the moment when the aromas are formed by the heat, the color darkens, and the shells of the beans break open, leaving the inside, which is called gru'e, free to be ground in order to obtain a cocoa paste. At this point we can blend different gru'es to obtain a wide range of qualities or flavors, and it is also in this moment when sugar is added to the paste to produce dark chocolates, or milk and sugar to produce milk chocolates. Spices or vanilla may be added to the paste, which will continue mixing for approximately four days at between 50 and 80 degrees Celsius in order to extract the volatile acids, eliminate the last water molecules, and especially to round off the aromatic potential of the product.
Finally this paste is ready to be cooled according to a very strict temperature curve before pouring it in molds at 31 to 32 degrees, to then be further cooled in a tunnel. This operation, known as tempering, makes it possible to obtain a shiny chocolate.
Just as several grape varieties are used in making wine, there are three different kinds of cocoa trees that give special characteristics to their beans. The Criollo, which is the finest, most aromatic and precious cocoa, produces a supremely delicious chocolate. As this tree is the most fragile, its beans comprise less than five percent of world production. Forastero, the most used in the production of regular chocolates, comprises approximately eighty percent. It is more resistant but less elegant and aromatic than Criollo. The third, Trinitario, which is a hybrid of the two other varieties, was born in 1727 on the Island of Trinidad after a hurricane decimated the Criollo plantations. It has the resistance and high production of the Forastero with some of the finesse of the Criollo.
As in other products such as cigars, tea, coffee and wines, chocolate characteristics need special treatment to become the great final expression of what the artist/producer wants to show and what the terroir itself has offered. The best categories come from a specific geographical area that the French call cru, where the humidity, soil characteristics, sun exposure, water and air join together in a perfect way to produce the best plant and therefore the best fruits.
Considering the importance of the terroir, certain visionaries like Raymond Bonnat, who owns the Valrhona French Company, decided to celebrate the first century of the company in 1984 by offering his best clients a tasting of the first Grands Crus chocolates made with seventy percent of cacao from these select areas. Mr. Bonnat was also the first to use words related to wine description to describe his unique chocolates. Since then, many terms used in the describing the characteristics of chocolates are similar to those used in wine.
In 1998 Mr. Bonnat created the first chocolate mill'esim'es or vintages. The finest beans from a plantation on the island of Trinidad called Gran Couva-which is considered one of the best plantations in the world-were used to produce the Valrhona Gran Couva 1998. A second mill'esim'e was born in 1999 using the best beans of the Chuao Village in the valley of Arragua, north of Venezuela. All of these special chocolates are made in a dark chocolate style to allow fuller expression of the cacao from these outstanding areas than a blend with milk, sugar, vanilla or spices can express. This is why they are produced with more than seventy percent cacao. The higher the percentage of cacao, the smaller the percent of sugar, which obtains more bitterness.
In milk chocolate, the quality of the milk is more important than the quality of the cacao, which is why Switzerland is considered one of the best producers of this variety. Now that we have Gran Crus references, producers of milk chocolates pay more attention to the quality and origin of the cacao they are using.
To complete the list of the basic styles of the chocolate, we also have the whites, which should not really be considered chocolates. They are made principally with fat from the cacao beans, other dry lactic elements and a high dose of sugar.
Now that we know more about the production of the chocolate and how its elements play an important role in the final flavor, we need to add that much depends on how the different finished chocolates are treated by the artist/producer. A master chocolatier may add extra cream, fruits, liquors, or spices, creating new classifications and myriad new and different presentations such as truffles, pralines and nougats that are made with giandujas, ganaches, and melted chocolate bases, which every house produces in its own style. (Gianduja is a combination of hazelnuts ground to a fine paste mixed with cocoa; ganache is a combination of chocolate and heavy cream.) A well-known example would be the famous pralines and truffles made by Godiva in Belgium. They produce a variety that includes French Vanilla Truffle, Roasted Almond Truffle, Cappuccino Truffle, Extra Dark Chocolate Truffle and many others, so caution is necessary if we want to discuss pairing with a specific beverage. Connoisseurs of chocolates say that before enjoying any chocolate the mouth should be cleansed with pure water at room temperature and preferably also with a piece of white bread. As a sommelier and lover of discovering new tasting sensations, I suggest that it can be very pleasant if we consider some factors of the chocolate and the beverages we want to pair.
Chocolate has a bitter cocoa taste that comes partially from the tannins, the roasted aromas of the beans, acidity, the creamy texture if it has milk, cream or fat, and the sweetness of the sugar and any extra ingredients such as vanilla, cinnamon or dry fruits. These are all elements that need to be considered in choosing the perfect match.
If we taste different kinds of chocolates with dry white wines, we find that they don't have anything in common, and even the classic dry champagne seems wrong because of the higher acidity in the champagne, the freshness of the temperature and its fragile fruit flavors versus the strength, sweetness and toasted aromas of the chocolate. If we want to match a champagne we need a champagne doux, a sweet wine, so the fuller body, dry fruit aromas and higher sugar will make a good pairing with a piece of milk chocolate shelling a thin slice of butterscotch caramel. similarly, we have other sweet white wines that are compatible and powerful in their aromas of dry fruits, including Icewines from Canada, Beerenauslesen & Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, S'election de Grains Nobles in the north of France and the Tokaj Asz'u Eszencia, which even with full-flavored chocolates are magical. With all these sweet white wines I recommend chocolate covering caramelized peels of orange, ganache in a natural flavor and perhaps a dessert of dark chocolate with soft bitterness mixed with vanilla English cream.
When pairing with dry red wines we must be careful because if the chocolate is sweeter by far than the wine it will feel very bitter when we taste the wine, and also excessive tannins from the wine will coat the mouth so much that the chocolate will not be allowed to develop its best aromas. Some of the wines recommended for this match are five- to six year-old wines from the Rhone Valley such as C^ote Roti and Ch^ateauneuf du Pape, which offer red and black fruit aromas mixed with licorice, spices, cacao and toasted coffee and have lesser amounts of tannins after aging, which makes them better than for pairing. Cabernets and Zinfandels are also good if we want a more intense match in a New World style. Desserts with chocolate mousse could be an option.
To match perfectly with the general characteristics of chocolates, we need some sweetness with dry fruit aromas, nutty cacao and coffee notes, few tannins and a rich body, so Ports are ideal. Ports are divided in two mayor categories: those aged in a tank or in wood, and those aged in the bottle. The first are normally ready to drink as soon as they are bottled and shipped. Those aged in the bottle for many years are powerful, produce sediment and need to be decanted. The best examples of this category are the Vintage Port produced only in the best years.
Port wines comprise different subdivisions depending on how they are made. For the sake of brevity, I will emphasize the types that range from medium to strong in flavor, and in my opinion pair better with chocolates. These are the Aged Tawny Ports, which are blends of ports from several years. They are left in the barrel for ten, twenty, thirty, forty or more years until they take on nutty brown sugar with vanilla notes and silky texture in perfect harmony with dry fruits and spices. These wines are about finesse and the right balance in aromas and strength that goes the best with desserts made with dark chocolate of seventy percent cacao, pralines with almonds, nuts, mousse and orangettes. The ten and twenty year Ports are better because they are more intense; the thirty and forty years pair better with a cr`eme br^ul'ee.
If we want to taste desserts made with sweet dark chocolate or milk chocolate, it is better to pair with a ruby port and let the fresh red berries appear. For a paring with mild milk chocolates with dry fruit, you might try a sweet white port. The most intense dark bitter chocolates, sometimes blended with spices or coffee flavors, need more strength in the wine, and for that I propose the famous Late Bottled Vintages.
The pairing of chocolate with beverages offers a wider range of possibilities than can be offered here. But before saying good bye, I would like to invite you to taste chocolate with a PX sherry, Vin Jaune de Jura, Grand Marnier, old aged Cognacs with less alcohol and more interesting bouquet, 100% Malt Whiskies, old aged Rum, cigars and of course different Grand Crus of Coffee.
Have fun experimenting according to your own taste, and above all, enjoy.
Juan Carlos Flores, executive sommelier with Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas, was named Mexico’s champion sommelier in 2004, and in 2005 won the Five Star Diamond Award for best North American sommelier. Mr. Flores was educated in Mexico, France and the United States and speaks fluent English, Spanish and French. As executive sommelier, he oversees the extensive wine collections of Pueblo Bonito’s seven resort hotels and numerous restaurants, provides pairing recommendations, and serves as wine advisor and instructor. Mr. Flores can be contacted at email@example.com Extended Bio...
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