The corkscrew: pairing with chocolate
Nellie Ming Lee
Couple up I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't like chocolate. It's the all-round, perk-me-up indulgence. There was even a recent study that found the more chocolate consumed in a country, the more Nobel Prize winners that nation produces.
And chocolate works surprisingly well with wine.
The higher the cocoa solid content in chocolate, the darker it will appear, the richer it will taste and the more theobromine and phenethylamine (the brain's happy hormones) it will contain. Dark chocolate also tends to have lower sugar content, a slightly bitter taste and a rich, tongue-coating, lingering texture that complements the tannins in red wine.
This is the principal reason why the two pair so well. Milk chocolate has more cream (or milk) and sugar in it, so it's too sweet and mutes the flavours of the wine.
Beyond pairing, wine makers have also been inspired by chocolate. Three young Californians - Brandon Allen, Bo Silliman and Chip Forsythe, all friends since high school - started making wine as a way to meet girls at university. Their first foray involved collecting leftover lees (that's the goopy stuff at the bottom of the barrel with the dead yeast cells and sediment) and storing it in a big barrel.
From that they produced their first 300 bottles, onto which they attached handmade labels with their phone numbers. Their wine, Sexual Chocolate, has now evolved into a modestly successful brand. It even featured in a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit called "How Wine Became Modern", which the boys only found out about when attendees began getting in touch.
The wine itself is a syrah and zinfandel blend, with chewy tannins - but when I tried it with dark chocolate, the wine completely mellowed out on the palate. All in all, a very moreish combination.
On a more serious note, the innovative vintners at Dow's Port have created Nirvana, a port specifically matched to chocolate. Traditionally, port is paired with cheese and nuts, but Charles Symington and his team came up with a new angle to attract a new generation of drinkers.
They paired up with the Flanders Taste Foundation in Belgium, which identified the common flavour components in port and chocolate; then asked a chocolatier, a former Michelin-starred chef, a sommelier and a professional wine taster to judge samples from their vineyards.
The result is a port that has floral aromas of violets and wild roses, and soft ripe tannins with intense velvety textures. And it works best, in their view, with chocolate sourced from South America (Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica) with a cocoa content of at least 60 per cent.
For a fun end to an evening with friends, try your own pairings. Ask everyone to bring a bar of chocolate and match them with wines from a single varietal - I suggest merlot, syrah, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.