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“No dessert for me, thank you, just a few pieces of chocolate with a suitable wine": this is the sort of request you may happen to overhear at a restaurant. But what to serve with chocolate as an accompanying drink?
Cacao is one of the most difficult ingredients to pair drinks with, so much so that some even suggest serving nothing but glasses of cool sparkling water, especially if it is dark chocolate. In actual fact, with a little savvy, chocolate can be successfully teamed up with many different drinks, from wine to spirits and even beer.
The general rule is to choose a wine with a strong and assertive taste, one that is able to stand up to the intensity of chocolate without being overpowered. The higher the percentage of cacao, the greater length the wine needs to have.
An important point to remember is that, like wine, chocolate contains tannins which confer a sensation of dryness to the palate. In fact, a sweet food tends to make wine taste bitter and astringent, more acidic and less fruity. A red wine with even the faintest hint of tannins would be wasted on chocolate: the risk is that of creating a mouth-puckering sensation. Unlike other ingredients, all perfect pairings involving chocolate are based on harmony, never on contrast.
So, let's find the best drinks to pair with chocolate.
White chocolate pairings
White chocolate and whisky. In the same way as whisky, chocolate comes in a plethora of varieties, flavours and origins. The two work well in harmony, by playing with synergy and softening any harshness. Smoked whisky mitigates what is often an excessive sweetness in white chocolate.
White chocolate and any Sauternes. This sweet wine from Bordeaux, enriched by botrytis, has a good aromatic balance of citrus, orchard fruits and honey.
Milk chocolate pairings
Milk chocolate and Zinfandel or Merlot grape varieties. Zinfandel has moderate tannins and fruity hints of ripe raspberry and brambles, spices and tobacco. Merlot because it often suggests a note of cacao which harmonizes well.
Milk chocolate and Greek fortified wines. Pair it with wines such as Mavrodaphne of Patrass: they're perfect thanks to its aromas of dried fruit, walnuts and bittersweet caramel.
Milk chocolate and black Lapsang Souchong tea. A precious beverage which owes its complex notes to being smoked with conifer wood.
Dark chocolate pairings
We have chosen versatile chocolate types with a cacao content of 70 to 80 per cent and no more because beyond that percentage dark chocolate acquires notes that are almost resinous and rather bitter.
Dark chocolate and Port or Merlot. A classical pairing, of course, but one that works like a dream owing to the nuances of caramel and hazelnut which give way to plum and blueberry. However, most of the merit goes to the tannins which are so supple as to create silky in-mouth sensations. Of the same family, but each endowed with a different personality, sweet Marsala or Barolo Chinato make excellent alternatives.
Dark chocolate and Recioto and Amarone della Valpolicella. In north east Italy the grapes are left to wither after harvesting, enabling them to acquire aromas of sweet fruit and dried figs.
Dark chocolate and Banyuls. Often defined as France's answer to Port, this potent wine comes from the coastal region close to Spain which is specialized in Grenache grapes. Its flavours include caramel, chestnut, plum, dried apricot, sour cherry and orange peel, all of which are "friends" with dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate and US whiskeys of the American Oak variety. Triple distilled and aged exclusively in Bourbon casks, often endowed with pronounced notes of sweet vanilla and coconut, flavours which meld beautifully with darker chocolates.
Chocolate and spirits
Chocolate and rum. Both of them come from the Caribbean region and therefore get on rather well together. When you pair chocolate and rum, all that comes to mind are tiki cocktails and delicious tropical flavours. Chocolate works well with anything tropical such as lime, ginger, tropical fruit, almonds and even nutmeg!
Chocolate and beer. Some beers such as Stout, because rich dark beers all have "chocolaty" notes. In general, it is advisable to choose those with an alcohol content of at least 6%. The more sugar contained in the chocolate, the greater the need for a sufficiently aromatic beer to counterbalance it. As a general rule, select a beer which is at least as sweet as the chocolate you are pairing it with, whether dark, milk or white. At the same time, a piece of quality white chocolate can mitigate the aggressive nature of a very bitter beer. This pairing is so successful that some brewers even add chocolate to their beer during production: a growing trend in the ambit of craft beers.