Bean-to-bar chocolate-maker Pieter de Villiers says pairing wine and chocolate can be a really special experience, if you apply ample thought and time. At DV Chocolates outside Paarl he’ll offer wine and chocolate tastings only on request.
“Each cacao bean has its own character and flavour profile, just like any grape cultivar. The flavours reflected are very similar to wine: you’ve got the varietals, the terroir of where the beans are grown, and climatic variations affecting them,” he says. “From a country such as Venezuela alone, we’ve sampled 12 different cacao bean origins. We’ve yet to find one identical to the others.”
Pieter sees merit in customised pairings because he believes his single-origin chocolates from various global regions can easily outsmart the flavours in wines. “The cacao bean is much more complex and diverse with more than 600 individual flavour components. We get amazing natural flavours,” he says.
“I believe that in chocolate the flavour nuances are much more amplified than they would be in say, red wine. If you taste a Shiraz from the Hemel-en-Aarde region compared to a Shiraz made by Fairview in Paarl, you’d pick up different flavours from different temperatures and locations. But if I give you a chocolate from Madagascar and another from Venezuela, you’ll notice the flavours are much more amplified than they are in those two wines.”
Magic or Just Marketing?
Waterford was the first winery to offer wine and chocolate tastings. If you’ve ever been expertly guided through it on their Stellenbosch farm, you’ll know it’s a polished, pleasurable experience. Kevin Arnold and chocolatier Richard von Geusau collaborate on three dark and milk chocolates paired with the estate’s Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Natural Sweet wines.
Says Von Geusau: “The Waterford tasting has had people flocking since we started in 2003. I think what rattled things a bit is that other wineries got on the band wagon and thought they’d do the same but haven’t always applied their minds to it properly. With the others, it’s often a marketing thing rather than a properly-paired tasting.
“Kevin Arnold is a stickler for detail. We’ve spent hours and hours fine-tuning the original parings. Every new vintage also gets fine-tuned to make sure it’s still a match made in heaven,” says Von Geusau.
Chocolate and wine also changes the dynamic. Two successful Paarl wineries stopped artisan chocolate and wine pairings because wine sales were lagging. Most consumers probably leave the cellar door focused more on whether they agree with the pairings than on appreciating the wines per se.
Gabriëlskloof offers a wine and Honest Chocolate menu. Honest Chocolate sources raw, organic cacao in Ecuador. “It’s no coincidence we sought out Honest Chocolate,” says tasting-room manager Nicolene Finlayson. “These are the only chocolates that should be paired with our wines because they are dairy- and sugar-free and, super-importantly, contain no soy-lecithin emulsifiers. This means you get a ‘clean’ chocolate flavour that with our wines creates magic in your mouth. We’ve even paired our Viognier with an orange-flavoured chocolate—and what a ‘wow’ combination that is.”
So are there any pairing principles to consider? Von Geusau says it’s about matching strengths: if you have a really robust Shiraz then you need a good, strong chocolate, upward of 60 per cent. But if it is over 80 or 90 per cent, the chocolate could overpower the wine (in which case a fortified port or whisky would be more forgiving).
“Then you should look at the chocolate and the wine’s sweetness. We do a milk chocolate with Waterford’s Natural Sweet. But with a dryer red wine you’d use a darker chocolate. It just opens up another element to the wine,” says Von Geusau.
Thirdly, chocolate professionals often bring flavour to the party. That’s why you can’t just go to a supermarket and pick up a Lindt bar. Von Geusau’s Masala Chai 70 per cent chocolate incorporates a gentle spice blend, to warm up alongside the Kevin Arnold Shiraz. Nothing is supposed to dominate. With the Waterford Cab, 70 per cent chocolate partners rock salt crystals—because Cab works well with savoury elements such as salted roast lamb. And so on.
This chocolatier also works with brandies and fortifieds, but sticks to milk and dark chocolate for any wine partnerships. “White chocolate is very creamy and doesn’t really work with any wine. It’s generally a no-go unless it’s with port,” says Von Geusau.
Does It All Work?
Meanwhile Pieter De Villiers makes a point about white wines and dark chocolate. “I believe you can pair white wines with a higher acidity single-origin chocolate,” he says. “It’s about high acidity in the wine and high acidity in the chocolate, so the wine doesn’t neutralise the chocolate flavours.”
Pairings are punted aplenty at Creation Wines in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley—you can taste wines with canapés, chocolate and even tea. “Crucially, we make sure guests have an informed experience. It’s not a few glasses of wine and chocolates with a piece of paper; it is interactive,” says Creation’s Carolyn Martin. For Creation’s Paradoxical Chocolate Pairing she consumed “copious amounts of chocolate, drank a huge amount of wine and tasted a myriad of spices, herbs, flavours and ingredients” to reach what she terms the “satisfaction point” for each chocolate with each wine.
“We believe commercial chocolate does not pair with wine. If you’ve ever eaten chocolate with a chilled beverage you’ll be familiar with the way chocolate seizes up and goes waxy when it comes into contact with the liquid. This is a result of the tempering process that makes commercial chocolate hard and snappy,” Martin explains. So Creation commissioned artisan-tempered chocolate, its unusual crystal formation encouraging melting properties. Four wines were then flavour-profiled, and some of those flavours were infused into the chocolate—two whites, a milk and a dark. To match differing wine weights and tannins, chocolates were also chosen for their differing weight and tannin structures.
But there’s a contrary view to wine and chocolate pairings. For MasterChef SA judge and consulting chef Pete Goffe-Wood it’s one or the other. “I don’t think wine and chocolate works,” he says. “Especially quality chocolate because there is an element of bitterness that really doesn’t do wine any favours. That lovely cocoa butter coats your mouth and that’s a killer for all wines—even a young, fruity Pinotage, which is often a recommended pairing.” He reckons the higher the cocoa content, the worse the effect—the flavour and complexity of most white or red wines is lost.
So is it best to take Goffe-Wood’s advice and opt for distilled grapes, especially at home? Perhaps. “Brandy makes more sense because you’ve got the higher alcohol—it cuts through the natural fattiness of the chocolate,” he says.
Maybe in the end it’s best to try Pieter De Villiers’s advice to simply enjoy yourself. “Wine and chocolate pairings usually start off all formal. But sometimes, and generally after guests have had several glasses of wine, the rules don’t really matter. It’s just about having fun.”
Words by Kim Maxwell
Sidebar: Where to Go for Wine & Choc
Six places offering clever pairings of artisan chocolates with wine or brandy.
Constantia Glen, Constantia. Chocolate tastings partner the farm’s three reds with three locally produced dark chocolates of varying percentages. R90pp. www.constantiaglen.com
Durbanville Hills, Durbanville. Custom-made by a Knysna chocolatier with input from a winemaker. Five wines with five artisan chocolates. R70pp. www.durbanvillehills.co.za
Gabriëlskloof, Bot River. The wine and Honest Chocolate menu pairs five estate wines (mostly reds) with raw Honest Chocolate free of dairy, sugar and emulsifiers. R65pp. www.gabrielskloof.co.za
Lourensford, Helderberg. Chocolats Marionnettes created four chocolates for three Lourensford wines and a liqueur. R65pp. www.lourensford.co.za
Van Ryn’s, Stellenbosch. A brandy, coffee and chocolate pairing combines three Von Geusau chocolates, three potstill brandies of varying ages and Brazilian coffee. R75pp. www.vanryns.co.za
Waterford, Stellenbosch. South Africa’s first wine and chocolate experience, it combines flavoured Von Geusau chocolates with three Waterford wines. R55pp. www.waterfordwines.co.za