"Death by chocolate is a common form of wine extermination," writes Joanna Simon in Wine with Food (Mitchell Beazley, £14.99). Well, I have to disagree. It requires a lot more thought, for sure, and it can go spectacularly wrong: the wine you think might work, because it has similar flavour characteristics to chocolate, often doesn't.
If you sit down to match chocolate puds and wine you really do need to think about the style of chocolate being used in the dessert (Valrhona's Manjari and Guanaja are poles apart). Play around with a few wines and pay attention to the particular flavours of the chocolate being used and hey presto, you'll find you've got a match.
But first, there are a few basic rules to observe. Rule number one is that the wine should be at least as sweet as the chocolate you are serving it with. Lighter chocolate desserts need lighter-bodied wines; likewise, the stronger the chocolate, the more powerful the wine should be.
Chocolate's fine texture and its fattiness, which coats the mouth, are the main stumbling blocks when it comes to matching it with wine.
So your chosen wine also needs to have good acidity, and intense flavours to compete.
There are many wines out there to choose from. Fortified wines such as Madeira and sherry, and sweet whites such as Tokaji and Sauternes, Vin Santo and Muscat are popular partners with chocolate. Even red vin doux naturels such as Maury can go well. And with the more in-your-face bitter dark chocolate, a big plummy, pruney Californian Zinfandel can work well.
Chantal Coady - the founder and owner of chocolate house Rococo - has a favourite all-round match for chocolate: it's Rhône red. One of the country's leading chocolatiers, Coady peddles her sublime wares from her bijou shop in London's King's Road (now also in Marylebone High Street, www.rococochocolates.com). There, she infuses dark chocolate with black pepper (a thrilling combination) and she studs bars with cardamom (a revelation), while milk chocolate is scented with rose essential oil and even sea salt (it works, honest).
So in the spirit of serious research, Caterer decided to test out Coady's theory on Rhône reds and chocolate with a matching session. We enlisted the help of the nearby Cheyne Walk Brasserie, whose wine-savvy general manager, Philippe Moreau (he has worked as a sommelier in some of France's top restaurants, including Georges Blanc), and head sommelier Oliver Caisson co-created the restaurant's all-French wine list. But before the Rhône red combo, they decided to play around with a few other flavours.
First up was Coady's sea-salt infused chocolate paired with a 2003 Picpoul de Pinet from Château de la Mirande. Unbelievably it worked, the briny tang in the wine complementing the sweet and sour element in the chocolate (the sea-salt infused chocolate was created as homage to Coady's childhood memory of walking along the beach with an ice-cream by the way).
Next we tested Rococo's milk chocolate with rose essential oil washed down with Cheyne Walk Brasserie's top-selling bubbly, Devaux Rose NV. Not bad. "The wine is made with Pinot Noir which often has a rose petal character to it - I think it works," reasons Moreau.
Gros Manseng is another variety that has an unlikely affinity with certain chocolate. Coady and co reckon it works well with both her white and dark chocolate flavoured with cardamom, as well as with a Grenada 60% pure Trinitario. "These matches particularly surprised me," Coady admits. We also tried the latter with a young Sauternes from Château Filhot which managed to enhance the chocolate's intensity further, while smoothing out any lingering bitterness.
Also memorable was a half-dipped dark chocolate orange slice with a 2003 Banyuls from Rimage (Clos des Paulilles). However, for me, some not-so-successful pairing attempts included the Valrhona Guanaja with a Bourgeuil Gamay Pinot Noir (it made the wine taste sour) and, interestingly, that Rhône match - a Crozes-Hermitage from Domaine Belle Les Pierrelles 2002 with Coady's sensational black pepper infused chocolate.
"Hmm, maybe the wine is a little too lean for this - a riper style would have worked much better," admits Moreau, who reckons that a Californian Zinfandel, or even a Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir would have also fitted the bill.
"OK, so this exercise is taking it to the extreme but it is supposed to make you think about how many different varieties of chocolate are out there. There are so many similarities between wine and chocolate - from the importance of soil type, the variety of bean, to how it's roasted. Like winemaking, at each stage something can change the chocolate's character and that's something that people don't really know about," explains Coady.
Yup, believe it. Chocolate and beer can make a great match - it's the malt flavours, you see. Beer is made from malted barley, with flavours ranging from fresh cut hay and sweetcorn (in lager malts) to toffee and Malteser flavours in ale malts, while there are pronounced chocolate and coffee notes in darker malts; and smoky, roasted flavours in black malts and roasted barley. Hops are the other ingredient in beer which helps make a match with chocolate - hops are the source of beer bitterness, which complements the natural bitterness of some chocolate, cutting through its often powerful flavours.
Alan Porter, managing director of the Chocolate Society, and the Beer Naturally Campaign's Dr Paul Hegarty suggest the following matches:
- Gulpener Korenwolf (Dutch wheat beer) with Valrhona Porcelana
- Wychwood Brewery's Hobgoblin strong dark ale with Scharffen Berger Semi Sweet
- Grolsch Premium Lager with Chiman's Dark Chocolate with cardamom
- Young's Double Chocolate Stout with Valrhona Guanaja
- Innis & Gunn oak aged beer with Valrhona Manjari Ecorces d'Orange
- Liefmans Kriekbier with the Chocolate Society Organic Dark
- Worthington's White Shield IPA with Valrhona Palmira
Caterer asked three food-and-wine-matching gurus for their favourite chocolate and booze matches.
"I love really good, chunky LBV port - it's much better than tawny or Banyuls. And I love good bourbon with chocolate, for those who can't do sweet and sweet. Single malt scotch isn't bad either."
Kate Thal, wine consultant
"It depends on the type of chocolate. Orangey Muscats are quite nice with white or milk chocolate, and I'm a big fan of sweet reds, particularly LVB port with darker chocolate, provided the recipe is not too rich and heavy. And rich chocolate cakes are great with PX sherry. But in my opinion, hot chocolate fondants defeat almost any wine - or other options for that matter."
Fiona Beckett, author of How to Match Food and Wine (Mitchell Beazley, £6.99)
"My all-time favourite chocolate and wine match has to be chocolate fondant with pistachio and vanilla ice-cream with István Szepsy's 1999 Tokaji 6 Puttonyos. And here's a little tip - avoid serving Cognac too warm with dark chocolate - at a cooler 16°C the Cognac is more vinous and the alcohol less abrupt, and will combine with the rich texture of the chocolate better."
Matt Wilkin, sommelier, the Capital hotel, London