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Wine & Chocolate (November 4, 2008)

There are two reasons why wine and food go so well together. The first is that the pH of wine (the acidity) is similar to that of our stomach acids that help to break down what we ingest. So wine aids in digesting our meals. And second, wine tastes good and enhances the flavour of food. That's if the wine has been well chosen to match the particular dish.

We all grew up with the folk wisdom that red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with fish. While that is broadly true, it does not allow for the possibility of having white wine with meat if the wine has sufficient body or red wine with fish if the red wine is high in acid (cool climate reds like Ontario Pinot Noir with salmon, for example).

In these times of skepticism, all the old rules are being constantly challenged, it seems. Recently I was invited to bring along a bottle of a red wine to a tasting to see if there were reds that would go with oysters. Now the thought of red wine with oysters made my stomach turn but I decided, for the sake of science, to give it a go. I chose two red wines in my cellar with the most acidity I could find: they were Anselmann St. Laurent Trocken 2003 from the Pfalz and Lailey Pinot Noir 2004 from Ontario. There were fifteen other people at the tasting, all of whom brought a variety of acidic reds, including a Dolcetto d'Alba, a Blaufrankisch from Hungary, a Juliénas from the Beaujolais region, an Ontario Gamay and a South African Rosé. At the end of the evening, having devoured an unconscionable quantity of four different varieties of oyster and tasted twenty-odd wines along with them, I came to the conclusion that oysters and red wine was a marriage heading into divorce. It was a fun evening but we all had to admit that red wine with oysters is a bit of a stretch. I was happy to try it once, but like garlic ice cream or foie gras crème brûlée, once sampling is enough.

For me, chocolate is a food group. I keep a large bar of Lindt milk chocolate in the fridge and break off a couple of squares a day. I must have Swiss blood because the Swiss are the world's largest consumers of chocolate – over two pounds per head a year, which is not that much in my lexicon. And since wine is my consuming passion I am interested to disprove what all the wine books say: avoid wine if you're eating chocolate.

I recall a situation that happened in Italy some 25 years ago. I was visiting the Serego Alighieri estate in Veneto, where Dante lived for several years after he had been exiled from Verona in the mid-14th century. Count Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri, a direct descendant of the poet, invited another wine writer, Robert Black, and me to have a glass of his Amarone as we sat in his elegant living room furnished with antiques that made it look like a museum. Having poured the wine the Count then proceeded to offer us After Eight chocolate mints. Robert and I looked at each other silently wondering if the Count was trying to test us. Should we refuse the chocolate mint because the books say don't drink wine with chocolate or should we accept our host's chocolate like good Canadians for fear of offending him? We ate the chocolate and drank the wine – and it worked!

After this epiphany I began to look more seriously at combining my two favorite things in the world. My resolve was strengthened a few years later in Portugal where I was served a chocolate mousse dessert at a port quinta (wine farm) in the Douro Valley which was accompanied by a glass of lightly chilled Sandeman's 20-Year-Old Tawny Port. I can still taste the combination.

As a rule of thumb, fortified sweet wines are your best choice to go well with all kinds of chocolate: port, sweet or cream sherry (look for the Pedro Ximenez grape, usually shortened to PX), the sweeter Madeira styles of Bual and Malmsey, Marsala and the fortified sweet wines of southern France (ironically called Vins Doux Naturels) such as Banyuls, Maury and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. The Muscat grape, when vinified as a sweet wine on the Greek island of Samos or as Commanderia, the ancient fortified sweet wine of Cyprus, is an excellent partner to chocolate. Orange Muscat is particularly good and so too are fruit-based wines like Southbrook Winery's Framboise and Cassis.

When deciding what to match with chocolate, keep in mind two principles. One, as with any kind of dessert, the wine should be sweeter than the dish; otherwise, the wine will taste sour and acidic. And just as there are different types of meat and fish that require a different style of wine, so there are different types of chocolate.

White chocolate
White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, milk, vanilla, lecithin (one of the compounds in egg yolks) and sugar; but since it does not contain cocoa liquor it is not officially chocolate even if it tastes good. It has a buttery, sweet flavour, not as intense as either milk or dark chocolate. Because of its soft mouth feel it goes well with sweet sherry or a frizzante (lightly sparkling) wine made from the Muscat grape such as Muscato d'Asti.

Milk chocolate
Milk chocolate consists of at least 10 per cent chocolate liquor, a minimum of 32 per cent cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin and milk solids. It does not have the cocoa-like flavour of dark chocolate but is rich, sweet and mellow on the tongue. Because of its sweetness I would avoid all red wines under 14 per cent alcohol. Fortified wines (listed above) go well with milk chocolate and so do the sweetest of dessert wines, such as Canadian Icewine, particularly Vidal, and Quady's Black and Orange Muscats from California.

Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate must contain a minimum of 40 per cent cocoa butter and a 15 per cent concentration of chocolate liquor but it does not contain milk solids. The taste is semi-sweet and drier on the palate, especially those with high cacao content above 70 per cent. Because of its relative asperity, dark chocolate is the easiest to match with red wines, but again these wines have to be richly extracted. This means red wines from warm growing climates such as California or Australia. California Zinfandel and Merlot would work well and so would Australian Shiraz. From Europe, look for Amarone, especially the sweeter version, Recioto della Valpolicella and Primitivo from southern Italy.




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