It’s Surprisingly Difficult to Pair Wine with Chocolate, but These Tips Can Help

An illustration of a chocolate bar
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

Both symbolic of romance, wine and chocolate are arguably two of the most classic Valentine’s Day delicacies. But pairing the two isn’t always as easy as it seems.

“Both are very terroir-driven products in that they reflect the flavors of the land in which they’re grown and the environment in which they’re processed,” says Alexandra Schrecengost, a beverage-industry veteran and CEO of Virtual with Us, which curates wine and chocolate pairings as part of its virtual event offerings. “The polyphenols in chocolate are similar to the ones in wine, and they form a natural pairing in that way as well.”

Polyphenols are a category of plant compounds that can act as antioxidants and are said to offer an array of health benefits.

Like wine, chocolate is also sourced from across the globe. Each region has a unique terroir that results in distinct and nuanced flavors.

“Even one estate will taste different than a neighboring estate,” says Roxanne Browning, a chocolate sommelier. She’s hosted wine and chocolate experiences in New York since 2010. “So it’s very specific.”

The trick is to find two flavor profiles that complement one another.

“First, taste the wines and chocolates on their own,” says chocolatier Chris Kollar, of Napa Valley’s Kollar Chocolates. “Next, write down flavor notes and profiles of each product separately. Then compare the similarities that stand out and start honing what particular wine pairs favorably with the chocolate.

“They both have to share the limelight and complement each other to have harmony across your palate.”

The outcome to avoid? Bitterness.

“The largest thing to understand is that flavonoids are the most prominent polyphenol in chocolate, which gives off a bitter taste similar to tannins in a wine, so you don’t want to overload those phenols,” says Schrecengost. “The drier the wine, the more bitter the chocolate, and you do not want to do that to your palate.”

If this all sounds overwhelming, here’s an easy rule of thumb: Pair lighter chocolates with lighter wines, and dark chocolates with darker, heavier wines.

“I like to refer to wines and chocolate in terms of weight class,” says Josh Mitchell, culinary director at Theorem Vineyards in Calistoga, California. “To have better success in pairing wine and chocolate, making sure they share a similar weight or structure is key. If the structure of the wine and chocolate are off-balance, the pairing can produce astringent or unpleasant flavors, or just fall flat.”

Here’s how to pair wine with different kinds of chocolate.

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Dark chocolate

“Pair a darker chocolate with bigger reds or Ports,” says Todd Graff, winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga. “The higher tannin complements the bitterness of the cacao.”

Kollar suggests that you stick to dark chocolate between 67% and 72%, as it won’t be overly bitter or too sweet for red wines.

That percentage refers to how much of the chocolate, by weight, is made from pure cacao beans or derivatives like cocoa butter. This can indicate the intensity (a high percentage) or sweetness (a lower percentage) of a chocolate.

While big, red wines are the standard for dark chocolate, Michael Kennedy, sommelier and founder of Vin Fraîche Wine Group, encourages experimentation.

Kennedy discovered a surprisingly good pairing by accident when he tried an 85% dark chocolate bar with an Oregon Chardonnay from State of Mind Wines.

“The two were like heaven together,” he says. “The super-dry, bitter dark chocolate confoundingly complemented the salty, bright acidity and texture of the Chardonnay.”

Milk chocolate

Milk chocolate is the most flexible variety when it comes to wine pairings, and it can match with an array of styles. Frank Family will pair an Orange Grand Marnier Raspberry Milk Chocolate with a Brut Rosé for an upcoming event, but Schrecengost’s favorite milk chocolate pairing is Riesling.

“Its honey aroma and stone-fruit flavors amplify the creaminess of the chocolate, and they’re both on the sweeter side, so neither is competing for your palate,” she says.

Moreover; lighter-style reds, like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais, offer a safe bet.

“Most lighter red wines tend to be higher in acid, which also acts as a contrast to the richness of the chocolate,” says Mitchell. He recommends the Champagne truffle from Teuscher Chocolate for lighter red wine pairings.

“The structure of the chocolate is creamier and more rounded so as not to overpower the lighter-style red wine,” he says.

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White Chocolate

White chocolate is best matched with white wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or a sweeter bottling like a Moscato.

“I can’t think of a better sweet match for Sauvignon Blanc than something like a white chocolate,” says Schrecengost, who gravitates toward Green & Black’s organic white chocolate bars. “They have a hint of Madagascan vanilla that enhances the fresh lemongrass and citrus notes in Sauvignon Blanc.”

Mitchell is partial to a white chocolate with citrus undertones from Belgium’s Callebaut Chocolate. “It would pair beautifully with a crisp sparkling wine or even a dessert wine such as Moscato di Asti,” he says.

Chocolate with fillings

Chocolates that have filling are the trickiest to pair. A filling’s flavors can run the gamut.

“I have found the pairings that work best are those that have complementary flavor profiles that cancel each other out,” says Mitchell. “For example, chocolates with fruit filling quiet the fruit flavors in the wine, allowing lovely notes of caramel oak to surface. Similarly, caramel-filled chocolates mirror the wine’s oak notes, bringing lovely fruit flavors to prominence.”

For Kennedy, he admits to a simple “guilty pleasure” of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with an Tuscan red like La Caccia di San Giovanni.

“The rustic earthiness of our Italian estate with the bright fruit from the Sangiovese are really wonderful complements to the sweet nuttiness of Reese’s,” he says.

Published on February 11, 2021
Topics: Food and Wine Pairings