If approached with caution, the pairing of chocolate and wine can prove delicious.
When a press release issued some years ago heralding the launch of a local cocoa-infused pinot noir was found to be an April Fools' Day gag, I sighed with relief that this tricked-out atrocity was an imaginary concoction. But now one really exists, while the road through chocolate and wine more generally is coated with combinations both delicious and distasteful.
"Chocolate Shop" is the name of the wine flavoured with dark chocolate. It's swiftly proved a success in the US where it was initially launched last year, and Britain and Australia, where it's recently been introduced. Thankfully it's yet to hit our shores. Regular readers of my column will recall that I'm no fan of adding anything extraneous to wine, which I regard as already being a complete product with exciting flavours of its own. A product like Chocolate Shop is taking wine downmarket on the route of the RTD, a path it shouldn't be taking, in my book.
This Frankenstein wine aside, if you're thinking of making some of your own wine and chocolate combinations this Easter you still need to proceed with some cocoa caution. Given the sugar and fat content of much chocolate, the most natural matches tend to be with rich and sweeter wines. Some of the safest bets are fortifieds, such as ports and liqueur muscats, which have sweetness and the power to compete with palate-coating fat that can strip out flavour in lighter wines.
Other likely candidates are dessert wines, especially one in which botrytis has boosted their concentration, richer late harvest styles and unctuous examples made from dried grapes, such as Pedro Ximenez sherry. Sparkling shiraz also has the sugar and strength flavour for some sweet affiliations.
As a rule it's best to avoid any wine that's very dry as chocolate can make these appear tart. However, although tricky, it's not impossible - as noted by Christopher Keys, winemaker at Gibbston Valley Estates, which has partnered with Patagonia Chocolates to promote some pairings.
In his tasting trials he described the marriage of chocolate and pinot gris as a "disaster". However, he discovered other combinations, such as his Reserve chardonnay and white chocolate, were far more complementary.
"We found that the creamier white wines combined with white chocolate very harmoniously, whereas styles that rely on higher acidity struggled," he notes.
"With dark chocolate and higher cocoa solid percentages, rosé and pinot noir's loaded berry flavours became a sweet accompaniment, with a parallel between the tannins in pinot noir and the bitterness of dark chocolate."
Ripeness in a wine is crucial, thinks Key, who advises steering clear of "anything too old, savoury, dusty, herbal, green or acidic", which are unsympathetic to chocolate.
I agree that wines with sweetly ripe fruit are the recipe for success, such as Central Otago pinot noir, Australian shiraz and other New World reds.
Chef Richard Hingston has been putting plenty of thought into some sweet and savoury synergies of late. He's been masterminding a chocolate-themed degustation menu that kicks off Christchurch Casino's Chocolate Month.
"If you know your products then it's not so difficult to get some good matches," he maintains.
"You've also got to remember that there is a huge range of different chocolate as well: from cocoa powder and nibs, which contain no sugar, to white, milk and dark."
One of the more radical matches he's made is grilled salmon encrusted with herbs and cocoa nibs, served with a white chocolate bearnaise, mango chutney and a salad dressed with raspberry and bitter chocolate vinaigrette, paired with Allan Scott "The Wallops" Marlborough chardonnay.
Daring and potentially delicious wine and chocolate matches like these are something of which I definitely approve. Far better than lobbing a load in the wine itself.
LIKE WINES FOR CHOCOLATE
SWEET WITH WHITE CHOCOLATE
Allan Scott "The Wallops" Marlborough Chardonnay 2010 $29
A chardonnay with some creaminess has an affinity with white chocolate, such as this elegant example - Hingston has paired with his salmon and its white chocolate bearnaise - in which grapefruity freshness is counterpoised by rich toasty notes. (From Glengarry, La Barrique, Mount Wine Barrel Tauranga, Advintage, Kumeu Cellars.)
Gibbston Valley "Late Harvest" Central Otago 2011 $30 (375ml)
While judiciously selected dry wines can work with chocolate the most successful matches are with sweeter styles, such as this tangy apricot-packed blend of riesling and pinot blanc, whose notes of orange zest are echoed in its pairing with Patagonia's milk chocolate with citrus peel and caramelised nuts. (From Gibbston Valley cellar door, Glengarry Victoria Park.)
Valdespino El Candado Pedro Ximenez Sherry $$27.99 (375ml)
The concentration of this veritable fruitcake in a glass, with its notes of rum and raisin, nut and candied peel can take on the richest of chocolate fare. (From Glengarry.)