Pairing Wine and Chocolate – What Works Best?

Gourmet Chocolates for Wine Pairing

Wine and chocolate. It sounds like a match made in heaven, but quite honestly, the pairing rarely lives up to expectations. Why? The natural tannins in red wines fight with the chocolate, and the sweetness of the chocolate make the wine seem more tannic – a visious cycle.

The solution? Pair dark chocolate with sweet wines.

Though Americans turn up our nose at sweet wines, the truth is they can be heavenly when part of the dessert or cheese course. It has always struck me as odd that the country that consumes Coca Cola (at 10 cubes of sugar per can) won’t touch high-quality dessert wines. I’m not talking about table wines with high degrees of residual sugar – please leave those on the bottom shelf at the wine shop where they belong. For pairing with chocolate, turn to wines made as dessert wines.

But before we get to the wines, let’s talk for a moment about chocolate. Because Mmmmmm.

The Ideal Chocolate:

While most of the chocolates you see on the market, especially around Valentine’s Day, are often milk chocolate, white chocolate, or cream-filled, I recommend pure chocolate bars – the darker the better. Those with almonds also work well, especially with the wines I’ve recommended here, which are known for their nutty characteristic (called Rancio by wine collectors- our wine geek word of the day).

Fortunately for all of us, there has been an explosion of artisinal, single-source chocolate producers in the past decade. Look for Dandelion Chocolate (“bean to bar” chocolates), Dick Taylor and many, many others. Melissa Clark of the New York Times, published a good article last year listing 13 of her favorite gourmet chocolate producers which includes these two favorites of mine plus 11 others.  I also recommend her article on chocolate tasting techniques –  we’ve found the approach she describes to have significantly elevated our tasting experience.

The Ideal Wine:

And now for the wine – the crowning glory in the whole affair!  While some have found pleasure in pairing dark chocolate with highly extracted/high-alcohol table wines (the reds from Rombauer come to mind, as do those from Frank Family, Biale, many Lodi Zins…) I skip this intermediate step in favor of wines specifically designed to pair with dried or baked fruits, nuts and dark chocolates – fortified wines such as these:


Value Option: Passagem Tawny Port. $19.99/500ml btl. ($0.04/ml)

Tawny Port

Port is the term for a fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro region. Wines made in a similar style that are NOT from Portugal can’t use the term “Port” (such as the one from the fun and jovial winemaker, Andrew Quady, who calls his Port-style wine “Starboard”). But the real thing is sufficiently affordable to justify a trial purchase. Look for a basic Tawny without any age indication for a deliciously satisfying and affordable Port. Passagem Tawny Port $19.99/ 500ml bottle.

All ports are part of the family of fortified wines – wines whose fermentation was stopped by the addition of a grain alcohol, thus preserving the grape’s natural sugars before they could be fully fermented into alcohol while also raising the alcohol level in the finished wine.

Ports are generally 18%-20% ABV, and because they are so rich on the pallet and high in alcohol, they’re served in smaller pours than regular wine. Most producers of high-end stemware have a line designed specifically for Port, and if you have sufficient storage space, Port glasses make a nice addition to your stemware collection. Otherwise, use the smallest wine glass you have and pour less than half full – about 4 ounces. Ideal serving temperature is “Cellar temperature”, or about 60-65 degrees.


Comparing the color of the 10-year Tawyny (L) and the Tawny (R). Passagem’s 10-year Tawny, $33.99 / 500ml bottle ($0.068/ml)

10-Year Tawny

Aged in smaller oak barrels than is a Vintage Ruby port (aged in huge, often century-old wooden casks), Tawnies age more quickly due to the higher ratio of wood-to-juice. A ten-year tawny like this one (left, above) was aged in oak for ten years, while the regular Tawny (right, above) still shows its youthful color and brighter fruit flavors. But it’s color is not the only difference – the older wine exhibits greater nutty, spice and Sherry-like notes that go quite well with chocolates of all styles. Passagem, 10-Year Tawny, $33.99


A delightful but obscure dessert wine – Rivesaltes Ambre. $25.99/750ml bottle ($0.035/ml)

Rivesaltes Ambré

Rivesaltes is a town in the South of France and a demarcated wine-making area known for sweet wines – this is one of six types produced there (Rosé, Grenat, Ambré, Tuilé and Hors d’Age). The Ambré style sees at least two years of oxidative aging that yields a deep golden hue upon bottling, and which darkens further with bottle age. The flavor is distinctly nutty with citrus peel spice notes. ~16% alcohol. Read more about this fascinating place here at – Domaine Fontanel 2008 Rivesaltes Ambré, $25.99


2003 Banyuls Grand Cru, Cuvee Joseph Nadal. A true treat! $47.99/btl ($0.064/ml)


La Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a co-operative of small growers from the best sections of Banyuls, producing wines at the highest quality level for the appellation. Among the best dessert wines I’ve tasted, but also one of the most obscure (the vast majority being consumed within France), the wine is similar to an aged Tawny Port in both alcohol (~20%), aging (9 years in cask) and flavor profile (nutty with a ginger and spice top note). Read more about it here – 2003 Banyuls Grand Cru Joseph Nadal, $47.99 

Whatever wine you choose to pair with chocolate, I encourage you to experiment with something new – new chocolates, new wines, and maybe, even new friends to share them with. Physically distanced, of course, as long as our health requires it, or even virtually if necessary!

About the Author: Dave the Wine Merchant has been involved in wine for four decades. He now enjoys discovering and sharing global wines that stretch the imaginations of curious wine lovers and encourages them to “discover a new favorite!” 

Simple Chocolate-Walnut Tart

Choc-Walnut TartAnother simple dessert you can make in a matter of minutes!  But one that will get raves whenever it’s served.

Here, the walnut’s natural bitterness is balanced by the chocolate, and the rich combination of the two will make you want to squeeze this tart between your teeth on a regular basis.  It yearns for a good red dessert wine such as port, late-harvest Zinfandel or the one I’ve recommended below – the sweet Tannat from Vinedos de los Vientos.

A note on the crust, while anyone with a food processor can turn out a sweet tart crust in ten or fifteen minutes, I would encourage the use of a frozen crust if it means you’re more likely to try this recipe!

One tart crust (Pate Brisee), recipe of your choice, or a frozen store-bought crust
5 Oz bitter-sweet chocolate
4 Tbsp butter
1 Cup dark corn syrup
1/4 Cup sugar
3 Eggs
2 Tbsp Brandy, rum or cognac
2 Cups toasted walnuts, cooled and chopped, with enough whole walnuts to place on top if you choose
Confectioner’s Sugar for dusting, plus sweetened whipped cream for topping (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350.  Using a microwave or double-boiler, melt the chocolate and the butter together.  If using the microwave, use 30-second intervals, stirring in between with a wooden spoon until well melted and all lumps are gone.  If using a double-boiler, bring the water to a boil, turn the heat to very low, then place a large metal bowl on the pot – it should not touch the hot water, and the bowl must be large enough to keep any steam from entering the chocolate (water makes hot chocolate seize, and this is difficult to repair!)

Combine the corn syrup and the sugar and heat in a microwave for 30 seconds (stir and repeat as needed until the sugar dissolves), then add it to the chocolate, stir for a few seconds and turn off heat.

Break the eggs into a bowl, add the alcohol and whisk until foamy.  Temper the eggs by drizzling the melted chocolate into the egg bowl, whisking constantly.  Gradually introducing the hot chocolate to your eggs like this keeps the eggs from scrambling,

Add the toasted walnuts, blend well and pour into your tart crust, distributing walnuts as evenly as possible.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 min or until fork comes out clean.  Allow to cool, then dust w/confectioner’s sugar.  Serve with sweetened whipped cream.

Wine Recommendation

You may have heard me say this a million times, but just in case… one of the keys to a successful wine and food pairing is to make sure the sweetness of the wine is at least equal to the sweetness of the food.  So, a sweet dessert such as this one calls for a dessert wine.  And I think  this one goes better with dark chocolate than just about any wine I’ve tried (with the possible exception of some ports).

Vinedo de los Vientos, Alcyone N.V., Sweet Tannat (500ml), $30 – from the unlikely country of Uruguay, this wine has taken San Francisco wine bars by storm.  My initial order was a trial run of just six bottles, which quickly sold out once I poured it during wine classes.  And when I went to order more I was told the importer had sold out and was awaiting another container of it to arrive.  Ugh.  Fortunately, it has arrived, and I was able to get a small allocation for my customers.  Enjoy!

The First S - SeeCheers!
Dave the Wine Merchant

Quote for the Day
“Put “eat chocolate” at the top of your to-do list today.  That way, at least you’ll get one thing done.” ~ Author Unknown

Wines for Your Thanksgiving Feast

thanksgiving-turkeyWithout ever looking at a calendar I can tell when Thanksgiving is near.  This uncanny ability doesn’t come from some innate circadian rhythm.  It comes from phone calls that begin in early November.

The callers usually start with a bit of pleasant small talk, transition into their Thanksgiving menu and guest count, then end with a discreet question like “what wine would you select for a meal like that?

The truth is, if you asked 100 well-trained wine merchants that question, you’d get almost as many answers.  I’ve learned that the best way to get rave reviews on your Thanksgiving wines is to open enough bottles to span the range of possible preferences.

Of course, there’s always the tongue-dead relative who only wants Jack Daniels (or White Zinfandel, or Dry Sack Sherry, or…Diet Coke) a situation I overcome by accepting their offer to bring something with “just bring whatever you’d enjoy drinking that day

But for those with more finely tuned palates, I offer the following suggestions for wines that will compliment your holiday meal.

B_Rose2007Sparkling Wines

I hand a flute of sparkling wine to guests the moment they come in our door – can you think of a happier way to be greeted? But don’t stop there, keep a bottle on ice to enjoy throughout the meal, sparkling wines are under-rated dinner companions!

To help make sure you have a perfect pairing between your meal and your sparkling wine, consider using mushrooms and herbs to accent the flavors of your meal, particularly your gravy and stuffing (or dressing, if you cook it outside the bird).  And keep in mind you’ll want a Brut or Brut Rose with the main course, but something sweeter – say a Dry or Extra Dry – when it comes time for dessert.

Though Thanksgiving is a great time to pull out the expensive Champagne, unless you’re dining with guests who can appreciate the delightful nuance of Grande Marques, you may want to save the pricey bottles for more intimate occasions.  Here are some budget-friendly sparkling wines that deliver a lot of wine for the money!

Pinots from $18 - $50Pinot Noir

If there is to be any agreement among my hypothetical group of wine merchants, it would be that Pinot Noir is a delightful choice for the Thanksgiving table.  But this is a wine that can be inconsistent – you can pay a lot (as in, a LOT) of money and still get a disappointing wine.  So be sure to talk to a trusted merchant who can guide you to a good choice within your price range.  I’d welcome you to consider my hand-picked  selection of pinots, ranging in price from $18 to $65.

Suggested ingredients that make this wine sing include mushrooms and fresh herbs (sage and thyme are particular favorites of mine), and even the cranberry sauce is an equal match for this mouth-watering red wine.  But if you want to serve one wine at your meal, this is the one that most people will find a perfect pairing.


Though a heavily oaked Chardonnay will fight with food, one made with a deft touch of oak works quite well with this meal.  The problem with California Chardonnay is that many of them are formulaic and innocuous.  I suspect they’re  made by uninspired Winemakers responding to management’s demand for “a $19 Chardonnay“.

Nonetheless, it is our nation’s #1-selling wine, and a thirsty nation seems content with the inter-changeable nature of many Chardonnays.  But this noble grape – the soul of White Burgundies – has the ability to turn heads when grown in the right area and crafted by inspired hands.

To enjoy a Chardonnay that will be as memorable as your holiday meal, I recommend seeking the advice of a trusted merchant, one who will find a Chardonnay to make your guests sit up and take notice.  Finding a wine that compliments your specific holiday menu results in the food tasting better AND the wine tasting better.  It’s a synergy thing.  Click here to see our hand-picked Chardonnay’s at prices from $9 to $49.

Viognier_06Other White Wines for Turkey

The traditional holiday meal provides lovers of aromatic white wines the chance to evangelize their favorite grape to a receptive audience.   For those weary of the same-old wines, these delightful but obscure varietals are far from the well-worn Chardonnay path.

While I find many Sauvignon Blancs too herbaceous to pair well with the traditional Thanksgiving feast,  you’ll find joy in such varietals as Pinot Blanc, a dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer.  And the minerality in a Chenin Blanc from the Loire brings smiles all around.

But my favorite white wine with my holiday meal has a bit more mouthfeel to it – the white varietals from the Rhone Valley!  And of these four – Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc – my favorite is Viognier, with its flirtatious nose of spring blossoms and its white pepper spice and bitter finish keep the wine from being a simple, air-headed bimbo.  Fortunately, very good Viognier is available at a reasonable price, though the higher end can offer a truly transcendent experience.  I suggest these three with confidence (priced from $16 to $37).

Wines That Pair With PieNobility Web-Ready

For some odd reason I have yet to figure out, the sweet tooth that defines the American palate does not extend to dessert wines.  Which is fine by me, as every drop of these wines is more precious than hummingbird spit (yeah, I cleaned that up a bit).  And if they were popular, or even if they were to become a small fad, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

If you were to look at a graph showing who drinks dessert wines, it would look like your classic “barbell curve”, with novices forming the first blip, the mass market forming a dip trough in the middle, and serious wine lovers forming another blip.  No matter, this way there’s more for me!

My favorite wines for the classic apple or pumpkin pies are the late harvest and botrytised wines from grapes such as Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, or a blend of Sauv Blanc/Semillon.  A small glass of these rich, honey-like wines is dessert in itself, with an intriguing floral-honey-apricot fragrance that makes it difficult for me to pull my nose out of the glass long enough to taste it!

For a wine to go with pecan pie,  much depends on any accompanying flavors.  My favorite recipe for pecan-chocolate pie with brandy requires something with a bit of oompgh, such as the Alcyone sweet Tannat from Vinedo de los Vientos in Uruguay ($31), which is among the best chocolate wines on the planet right now.  For a more traditional pecan pie, I’d opt for an LBV port or even a late harvest Zin or Syrah. Click here to see my hand-picked dessert wines for your holiday table ($15 – $75, mostly in small bottles)

Buy Online?  Or at Your Local Wine Shop?
Shopping for new wines online occurs in an information vacuum, which is why I invest so much time writing my notes for all the wines in my store.  But for the holiday season I’ve also added real-time chat sessions to provide buying assistance in real time.  Whenever I’m at my computer you can ask for my advice from right inside my shopping cart, and even when I’m away from my desk you can send an email.  Test it out – click here and once in my cart look for my smiling face in the left frame.  Then send me a note just to say Hi!

The First S - SeeCheers,
Dave the Wine Merchant

Quote of the Day
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy (American President, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963)