I have always meant to participate in Wine Blogging Wednesday, because I drink a lot of wine, and lately some of the topics have been near and dear to me, but alas, now I finally have a chance. When I read the topic for this month's event, I knew exactly who to enlist to help me - Chris Dillman, wine buyer for the Burgundy Room. He was nice enough to agree, and when I arrived at the bar last night after work, he was ready with a wide range of wines. Our dessert du soir was a moscato chocolate bombe from Pistachio - a Sweet Kitchen, appropriately chocolaty. We also had chunks of semisweet (62%) bar chocolate, just to compare the differences. But on with the wine.
Chris told me he was excited for this experience, because he feels that, like cheese, most people incorrectly pair chocolate and wine. Chocolate is tricky because it is full of fat which, because it melts at body temperature, completely coats the tongue. You need something that will stand up to the chocolate while enhancing it at the same time.
"The nature of chocolate - it is very sweet, can be tannic - it tends to eat up or block any wine, almost like cheese. Just like with pungent cheese, you need something that is similar in texture - something sweet and rich. Quite often [with cheese], your best bet is a rich white wine, or a sweet, fortified wine." (But we were getting way off track, surely wine and cheese is another full topic) Chris had a notion we would find something similar with chocolate, but reserved most judgment to give me time to form my own opinion.
Before I start, I would like to mention that I enjoy all of the following wines on their own, or with their appropriate pairing, so just because something didn't go with chocolate doesn't mean I don't like or appreciate it. All prices are based on Ohio retail prices.
First up was the wine he thought would most illustrate how NOT to pair wine and chocolate, a high acid, dry white. For this purpose, he chose '03 Weingut Brundlmayer Steinmassel Riesling ($28) from Austria. The chocolate totally killed this wine - it could not cut through the chocolate coating the tongue, leaving behind only its tartness and a sour, back-palate acidity.
Next up, the wine he thought most people would choose to pair with chocolate - a big, full, tannic, high-alcohol red. Here the Elvi Wines Makor ($18), a Spanish blend of 60% Bobal* and 40% Cabernet which is, incidentally, kosher for Passover. Here, the wine retained a little more of its expressiveness, because it had enough tannin to battle some of the fat on the tongue; however, the chocolate killed all of the fruit in the wine, leaving behind an off-tasting, metallic flavor.
Now we started to get into the wines that Chris felt would more appropriately compliment chocolate. "With sweet things, it's hard to tell. I come in with an idea of what I think will go with a particular sweet item, and then the wine does something unexpected." (About 2/3 of the Burgundy Room's desserts come from Pistachio, and whenever the menu changes, he sits down with Pistachio owner Spencer Budros to find the most complimentary wine to pair with each item - by his own admission, his first instincts are not always right)
We started with the lightest of the sweet wines with the highest acid and lowest alcohol, 1997 Weingut Gysler Riesling Eiswein Weinheimer Holle* ($60 for a 500ml bottle), from Rheinhessen, Germany. This wine actually overpowered the chocolate - it stripped the chocolate right from the tongue (Chris didn't think it would stand up, and was surprised). Although this wine could stand up to, and indeed take over the chocolate, the flavor profile from the eiswein, being full of pineapple and apricot, was still not a compliment for the chocolate.
Next up, the king of all sweet wines, 1997 Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes* ($200 for a 375ml bottle). The heavy botrytis* to which this wine is exposed gives it honey, overripe & candied fruit characteristics, along with a nice toastiness from the botrytis and barrel-aging (it is the traditional accompaniment to foie gras) - it sure sounds promising on paper. Here were are starting to see some harmony - the Sauternes brings out nice rich spices in the chocolate, along with earthiness and vanilla. A good compliment.
But we weren't finished yet.
Next up, from red grapes, '88 Warre's Quinta de Cavadinha Vintage Porto ($54). "The age here might be a factor," Chris says, "the tannins should have started to subside, the fruit becoming more subtle." There is some harmony here, coming from the nice walnut and red fruit characteristics of the port, but the chocolate leaves mostly a heavy alcohol taste from the port, "This might be a result of the age of the wine or the fact that '88 wasn't the greatest of years," Chris said
And now, the 1922 D'Oliveiras Reserva Boal Madeira* ($250, can be difficult to find; check out The Rare Wine Company).The chocolate and Madeira have similar textures and flavors - rich, nutty - but here again the Madeira is far too high in alcohol and acidity for the chocolate. Chris thinks Madeira, although very well suited to sweets, is better suited to cream-based desserts. "If you had a really rich creme brulee, for example, this would be perfect," he said.
And finally, the '71 Bodegas Toro Albala, Pedro Ximenez Montilla-Moriles* ($23 for a 375ml bottle) dessert wine. This wine, although it comes from a white grape, is aged so long in barrel that it turns a deep, dusky molasses color. This had everything the chocolate had - concentrated richness with dark spices, hints of orange peel and cinnamon with great, autumnal hints of black walnut. The wine is just high enough in alcohol to round out the flavors and cut through a little of the chocolate. The finish is dark, rich, and sweet - chocolate and Montilla, a perfect and lingering memory. And here we are, a white grape wins the prize.
For me, the Chateau d'Yquem takes second place; Chris felt the Warre's was second, and it certainly is more affordable.
I asked Chris if he had any surprises - he was surprised that the Eiswein and the Sauternes stood their ground so well. "The bottom line here, and with all food and wine pairing, is that you want to match sweetness for sweetness, and texture for texture. [with chocolate], you want to avoid sharp acidity. The thick, palate-coating texture of chocolate matches well with the concentrated nature of the richer, sweeter dessert wines; their flavor hangs longer, and they are better able to battle the chocolate."
My thanks to Chris, for the great education.
Bobal: an ancient grape of unclear origins which loves hot, arid conditions. Rarely planted outside of Spain.
Eiswein (Icewine): an unfortified, late-harvest dessert wine made from various grapes. The grapes are left on vine until they freeze, and are picked and pressed while frozen (often in the middle of the night). There are lots of icewines produced in Germany, Canada and the U.S.; they can be very expensive because the grapes are so long in the elements that they are susceptible to rot and can be eaten by wildlife long before harvest. "Icewine" made from artificially frozen grapes is not technically icewine - although there are some "icewines" produced in Washington state, it does not typically get cold enough in the Pacific Northwest to produce true icewines.
Sauternes: a sweet wine made in the the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, France. Made from a blend of white grapes which have been infected with Botrytis (see below), which produces a concentrated fruit and distinctive honied flavor and color. Typically rather expensive due to fussy growind conditions and production (on average, it takes an entire vine to produce one glass).
Botrytis: a fungus which affects grapes, sometimes called "Noble Rot." It pierces the skin of the grapes, causing the juice of the grape to evaporate, turning them to raisins while concentrating their flavor.
Madeira: an island, or rather a group of islands west of Morocco, also a fortified (spirits added) wine made mostly on the island of Madeira, but also in Spain. The strange fermentation process includes purposefully oxygenating the wine and exposing it to high temperatures over a long period of time. This makes it one of the longest-lasting wines in bottle, and it will remain drinkable from an opened bottle for months, and maybe even years.
Montilla-Moriles: a region is Spain, and also a type of fortified wine similar to sherry. Comprised mostly of the Pedro Ximenez grape, an intensely sweet white grape. The wine is made by conditioning it in barrel for decades (here, for over 30 years). As it evaporates, the flavors concentrate and the color darkens (the evaporated portion of the wine is referred to as the "angel's share."