Chocolate & Fortified Wines
...Oh, chocolate! From the spice bazaars
of Africa, hulled in mills, beaten,
pressed in bars. The cold slab of a cave’s
interior, when all the stars
have gone to sleep.
Chocolate strolls up to the microphone
and plays jazz at midnight, the low, slow
notes of a bass clarinet. Chocolate saunters
down the runway, slouches in quaint
boutiques; its style is je ne sais quoi.
Chocolate stays up late and gambles,
likes roulette. Always bets
on the noir. - Barbara Crooker, Ode to Chocolate
“What wine goes with Captain Crunch?” - George Carlin
Are you wondering how these entertaining musings about chocolate and wine are related? Me too! For the life of me, I can’t seem to figure out any connection, yet I like them both and thought they’d be fun to pair side by side...kind of like chocolate and wine!
Many people are convinced that chocolate (particularly dark chocolate) and wine (particularly red wine), are a match made in heaven, but according to Ray Isle, executive wine editor at Food & Wine Magazine, “Chocolate and wine go together miserably. People seem to want to believe that a big, intense Cabernet or Zinfandel will go wonderfully with a hunk of high-quality chocolate; in fact, they want to believe it so much that they ignore what’s going on in their mouth, which is usually the chocolate obliterating the taste of the wine…”
Part of the confusion may be due to the fact that wine experts are not always chocolate experts, and chocolate experts are not always wine experts. I’ve seen sommeliers proudly pair exquisite wines with Dove chocolate simply because they don’t realize they’re serving candy, far removed from fine cacao which has twice as many flavor chemicals as their precious wine. They might as well offer you a heaping bowl of Cap’n Crunch!
Full-bodied and complex, fine chocolate is in possession of more than 400 flavor components and one of the most chemically intricate and challenging fats in nature (cocoa butter). That is why forethought is necessary when pairing smooth and sophisticated delights such as chocolate and wine. George Carlin, I mean no offense to you or your Captain. Instead, I offer you both a jolly salute and invite you (in spirit) on today’s pairing adventure!
Many experts agree that tasters will enjoy the savoring experience more if the wine they sip is sweeter than the chocolate. That is not to say that drier red wines always clash with dark chocolate. Your unique palate gets the final word on what constitutes a pleasant match. I have hosted tastings where Merlots, Cabernets and Champagnes have paired harmoniously with select chocolates. For now, though, let’s focus on some tried-and-true fortified wines that will undoubtedly elevate your chocolate experience.
What is fortified wine?
Fortified wine is crafted by adding alcohol (usually brandy or another distilled, neutral spirit), to wine in order to boost its alcohol content to 17-22% ABV. The practice became popular hundreds of years ago when European merchants sailing the high seas sought preservation methods that would prevent their wine from turning to vinegar. Through trial and error, these sailors learned that the higher alcohol level of the “fortified” environment interrupted the proliferation of destructive yeasts and bacteria, rendering a more palatable drink.
A fortified wine may be either sweet or dry, depending on when the “fortification” or addition of alcohol takes place. If the winemaker adds the extra alcohol before the fermentation process is complete, the wine will be sweet. Fortifying with distilled spirit after the fermentation is complete produces a dry wine.
Though fortified wines are often served with the dessert course of a meal, they are not technically “dessert wines.” Whether sweet or dry, fortified wines always contain added alcohol, unlike sweet dessert wines. One of the methods growers of dessert wine grapes use to achieve a high level of sweetness involves subjecting their grapes to a specific mold called botrytis cinerea. It sounds unappealing, and the shriveled, moldy grapes look rather tragic on the vine, yet they boast gorgeous flavors of honey and dried fruit. Grapes slated to become fortified wines are not exposed intentionally to this “noble rot.” Examples of dessert wines whose grapes are affected by botrytis cinerea are Hungarian Tokaji, German beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese and French Vouvray and Sauternes (Chateau d’Yquem is a Sauternes variety I’d love to taste. Let me know if you have some to share and I’ll come by with a nice Barometer Chocolate pairing option). Feel free to experience these dessert wines with craft chocolate, though many tasters prefer fortified wines alongside their bars.
Without further ado, please meet my spirited and diverse group of fortified wines with varying levels of sweetness and many chocolate chums. The lineup includes: Port, Sherry, Madeira and Banyuls. Uniquely charming, we’ll get to know each one and then engage in a bit of chocolate matchmaking.
Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine exclusively from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. During the Anglo-French War of the 17th century, the English government taxed all French goods, including wine. As an alternative, merchants in England started enjoying fortified Portuguese wine. Today there are at least 52 distinct varieties of Port wine grapes with characteristic flavors.
There are several styles of Port, but the two major ones include the slightly less sweet Ruby Port, with berry and chocolate flavors, and the sweeter Tawny Port, with caramel and nut flavors. There is a selection of Tawny Ports aged for at least 30 years that boasts a wider array of nuanced tastes such as green peppercorn, hazelnut, almond, butterscotch and graham cracker. A newer style of Port known as Rosé Port has strawberry, violet and caramel notes.
Port is at its finest when served at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It pairs nicely with richly flavored cheeses, salted and smoked nuts, chocolate and caramel desserts, and of course fine craft chocolate bars. The To’ak 75% Galapagos 2018 Harvest, the Fruition 74% Wild Bolivia, and Kahkow’s 68% Tireo bar would be lovely with a Ruby Port. The To’ak would also pair nicely with a Tawny Port, as would Ritual’s 75% Ecuador Camino Verde bar, or 70% S’mores bar (which is a lovely and cozy treat for autumn).
Sherry is a nutty, fortified wine from the southwestern province of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. The name is an anglicized version of Jerez. Sherry grapes (typically Palomino and Pedro Ximénez), thrive in the region’s limestone-rich chalky soil. Sherry undergoes a unique vinification process which requires a yeast called flor to impart characteristic nutty flavors.
A system known as solera is responsible for aging Sherry. It involves a complex tiered barrel configuration for fractional blending, where wines of several vintages are mixed. The method matures the younger wines, freshens the older wines, and over time, increases the average age of the finished product. Though it’s a labor intensive process, it is successful in maintaining quality and consistency.
The main types of Sherry, listed from driest and palest to sweetest and darkest are: fino, manzanilla, amontillado, oloroso, cream, and Pedro Ximénez. Amontillados are naturally dry but can be lightly sweet. They have a beautiful amber color and a rich, buttery and nutty flavor that pairs wonderfully with dark milk chocolate or Gianduja. Sip an amontillado while savoring Castronovo’s 63% Colombia Sierra Nevada Dark Milk Chocolate Bar, Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé’s (dairy-free) 73% Almond or Pistachio Gianduja Dark Chocolate Bars, or Fruition’s Pecans with Maple Cinnamon Milk Chocolate.
Bright red in color, Palo Cortado Sherry is refined, dry and elegant with hazelnut in the nose, and flavors of roasted nuts, citrus peel and saline. This variety of Sherry should be paired with chocolate that is not terribly sweet (70% or higher). Select bars with notes of fruit and/or nuts. I suggest Ritual’s 75% Peru Marañón, the Soma 70% Venezuela Porcelana, and the Friis Holm 70% Nicaliso Dark Chocolate Bar.
Oloroso Sherry is dry and ranges in color from amber to dark red. There’s walnut in the nose, and the flavor is rich with hints of fig, date, raisin, treacle and coffee. The ABV is rather high at around 22%. I suggest pairing an oloroso with Kahkow’s Dominican Nacional and/or Tireo 68% Dark Chocolate Bars, and French Broad’s 68% Nicaragua. Chapon’s 75% Bolivia Dark Chocolate Bar would also be a nice choice here.
Pedro Ximénez Sherry (made from the eponymous grape varietal), is a thick, ink-colored, extremely sweet ambrosia that is reminiscent of Christmas pudding. It is considered one of the best sweet wines in the world and pairs well with intensely dark chocolate such as Fruition’s 85% Colombia Tumaco, Pump Street’s 85% Ecuador Hacienda Limon, and Castronovo’s 80% Arhuacos, or Fruition's Los Bejucos 77%. I don’t carry any 100% bars in my collection, but if you have one that you find too bitter on its own, try it alongside a PX.
Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, is an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, west of Morocco and north of the Canary Islands. The temperate climate and volcanic, acidic soil contribute to its wine’s trademark acidity. Wine expert Ray Isle calls Blandy’s Five Year-Old Malmsey with citrus and caramel notes, “the absolute , top-of-the-heap, A+ chocolate-pairing wine.” Try this Madeira alongside the Chuao dark chocolate bars from Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé and Chapon. The To’ak Galápagos 2018 Harvest would be nice here, as would the Qantu 70% Gran Blanco, the Castronovo 80% Arhuacos, or the Fruition 85% Colombia Tumaco.
Often referred to as Port’s French cousin, Banyuls comes from the coastal town of “Banyuls Sur Mer,” on the Spanish border of southern France. This fortified wine has been crafted from Grenache grapes (one of the most widely planted varieties in the world), since the 13th century. They require hot, dry conditions to flourish. These versatile and hardy grapes are used to make many types of wine. They grow in Spain, Sardinia, the south of France, Australia and California.
The flavor of Grenache grapes is reminiscent of a fruit roll-up. Top notes include black cherry, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry, that give way to black pepper, cinnamon, and star anise, culminating in subtle tobacco and bay leaf. All of these notes factor into the aromatic profile, along with jammy fruit and citrus zest.
Banyuls typically has a high ABV (13-16%), a luxurious, silky mouthfeel, and low to moderate acidity and astringency, which makes it a suitable match for more complex dark chocolate bars. Fortified wines such as Banyuls, Port and Madeira, are made using the mutage method of halting the wine’s fermentation at approximately 6% ABV by applying additional pure grape spirit. Once the spirit is added, the ABV rises to around 15%. When the mutage process is implemented, the resulting fortified wines are called vins doux naturels or “naturally sweet wines.”
Though rich and full-bodied, Banyuls is less syrupy than many dessert wines, and more delicate than Vintage Port. Try it with Dick Taylor’s 72% Belize bar, Fruition’s 74% Wild Bolivia, Chapon’s 75% Bolivia, or the 70% Letterpress Tranquilidad.
How to Savor Chocolate with Fortified Wines:
For the past six weeks, I have invited you to take a bite of your chocolate first, and then move on to a sip of your spirit. For this final week of the series, let’s think outside the bar, and try something novel. Why not begin the tasting with your fortified wine? Take a sip, and notice its various components, including sweetness (or lack thereof), flavor notes, acidity, weight and length.
Next, take a bite or two of chocolate, allowing it to melt on your tongue as you register its sweetness level, and appreciate the flavors, intensity, and texture.
When the chocolate has largely melted and just a touch of solidity remains on your palate, indulge in another sip of the fortified wine, observing how the two substances marry in your mouth.
Craft chocolate bars, made with high quality beans and high intentions, have the capacity to hit crisp, bright, fruity and floral notes, as well as deep, resonant tones like earth and dark sugar. When the interplay between the notes is utterly lovely yet slightly unexpected, the chocolate is a masterpiece. In one perfectly balanced bite, I feel the oboe, the violin, the harp, the drums, and maybe even those low, slow notes of the bass clarinet that plays jazz at midnight in Barbara Crooker’s “Ode to Chocolate.”
The well-placed arrangement of complex notes is key, but no less significant are the still, creamy rests, or spaces that punctuate those notes. It’s the entire chocolate composition that grounds me on solid footing in a symphony between heaven and earth.
It’s no secret that chocolate is music to my mouth and that cacao feeds my soul. This is exactly how wine lovers feel about their wine. With chocolate and spirits united, the surprises revealed in the duet can be highly pleasurable. Even if the alchemy of the commingled flavors registers as less than perfection on your palate, fully inhabiting that stillness, that rest between the notes where you bear witness to the experience of your senses, is what it truly means to be alive.
So, with bar and glass in hand, I invite you to embrace the music, the poetry, the humor and perfect imperfection of every moment of your life...the high notes, the low notes, and the stillness in between. Especially now, when the world seems topsy- turvy, it is an act of self-love to live in the present with deep gratitude and a sense of abundance.
My series on pairing spirits and chocolate has drawn to a close, and I feel abundantly grateful to you, dear one, for your interest and support as together we march on, savoring and sipping out of a glass that’s half full. I have a hunch that together we make a perfect pairing. Here’s to celebrating the magic of life and friendship. May our escapades be sweet and always covered in chocolate!