I recently attended a chocolate seminar sponsored by Vermont’s’ Lake Champlain Chocolates. We tried different chocolates with several wines which got me thinking how little I really knew about chocolate. Meghan Fitzpatrick, PR and Communications Manager for Lake Champlain Chocolates, assisted me in the preparation of this article.
Where does chocolate come from?
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which produce cocoa pods that grow around their trunks, not on the branches. The cocoa belt is about 15 degrees north and south of the equator, so places like Africa, South America, Central America, Indonesia and Asia are where cacao trees grow. Farmers take these pods, slice them in half and scrape the beans from the middle. They then sandwich them between layers of banana leaves to ferment, for approximately two to nine days, where they begin to take on color and flavor. After fermentation, the beans are placed on wooden boards or bamboo mats to dry in the hot sun for up to 14 days. Once dried, the beans are packed into bags and shipped of to cocoa processors, all over the world, where they will be made into chocolate.
Once they receive the beans, cocoa processors will wash and roast them. Roasting helps enhance the flavors of the beans and it also helps to loosen their tough, papery shells. The actual bean inside is naturally segmented and will fall apart into small pieces call cocoa nibs. Nibs are basically raw chocolate. The nibs are placed under tons of pressure (literally) which will press out the vegetable fat, which we call cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a key ingredient in all chocolate and what gives chocolate its smooth, creamy consistency. What’s left over once the cocoa butter is pressed out is called cocoa mass. This is the other main ingredient in chocolate, which gives it its smell, color and flavor. Cocoa mass is very bitter. Once these two main ingredients are separated, they are then recombined in different proportions with other ingredients like milk and sugar to make three different types of chocolate. Combining cocoa butter, cocoa mass and sugar creates dark chocolate; cocoa butter, cocoa mass, sugar and milk creates milk chocolate and cocoa butter, sugar and milk creates white chocolate. Once you have the chocolate, companies such as Lake Champlain Chocolates use fresh, local ingredients like Vermont cream, sweet butter, pure maple syrup and local honey to create unique and luxurious chocolate confections.
Now the fun part comes- tasting the chocolate!
I have been to Lake Champlain Chocolates’ Factory Store in Burlington, VT where they regularly holds chocolate tastings. Not just eat it, but I had to slow down and recognize the different flavors as the chocolate melted in my mouth.
Four Basic Tastes: Similar to tasting wine.
Sweet: at the tip of your tongue
Sour: along the front sides of your tongue
Salt: along the back sides of your tongue
Bitter: at the back of your tongue
Sweet, sour, salt and bitter cannot be smelled. Usually when someone says something smells sweet, they are really smelling vanilla.
How can you tell if chocolate is good or bad? Very much like wine.
A lot is left to personal taste but there are some standards in terms of what is desirable in chocolate:
- Quick flavor release (vs slow)
-Quick melt (chocolate melts at body temperature, the moment you put it in your mouth). A quick melt is desirable.
- Well blended, even flavor notes
- Aftertaste that dissipates after about a minute
- Bitter is not necessarily a negative attribute in chocolate, especially in dark chocolate. It can be positive when talking about coffee, tea or fruits
- Sour can also be positive (tart apples, ginger, lemon)
Commonly used terms in chocolate tasting:
Sometimes it may be hard to identify exactly what flavors you are experiencing as you eat a piece of chocolate. Here are some common terms used when tasting chocolate. Once again, there are similarities to what we taste in wine.
Brown fruit (raisins/prunes/dried cherries)
Lactic sour (sour cream/cream cheese)
Caramel/caramelized or burnt sugar
Astringent (unripe fruit)
Six Steps to Tasting Chocolate
It only takes 45 seconds to go through this process. I need more time when tasting wine.
Study the look and color of the chocolate. If tempered, it should have a smooth, high sheen look. If grey/white, then the chocolate has bloomed – the fats or sugars have migrated to the surface of the chocolate leaving a whitish residue. This is due to a change in humidity or temperature.
Properly tempered chocolate should have a good, clean snap.
Smell the broken piece. Identify the fragrances.
Milk chocolate may have a milky, vanilla smell. Remember, that you cannot smell “sweet.” Dark chocolate may have more of a chocolate aroma. Unfermented beans smell like burnt rubber. Beans stored in humid areas can smell like grass or burlap. Beans dried over wood fires smell smoky.
How does the chocolate feel in your mouth? Quick melt or slow melt? Smooth or chalky?
What different “notes” do you taste in the different stages (Beginning, Middle, Finish)
What did you like or dislike about the product?
1-Aroma: Hold the chocolate in your hand, rubbing it to release the aromatics. Inhale deeply as it warms up and starts to melt. Remember, you can’t smell sweet—but you can smell vanilla, fruit, honey, cooked milk, and yes, chocolate.
2-Flavor Characteristics: Some unexpected flavor characteristics can be desirable. “Sour” can accurately describe tart apple, ginger, or lemon in chocolate. And “bitter” tastes can be a positive descriptor for dark chocolate, similar to coffee, tea and fruit.
3-Aftertaste: Look for an aftertaste that dissipates after about a minute.
4-Flavor Release: The flavors should hit your palate quickly, delivering an immediate impact. Slow release of flavors is generally not desirable.
5-Blend: Well-blended, even notes in chocolate are desirable; at the same time, contrasting flavors and textures in confections might create a deliberate and appealing, “spike.”
You may be thinking, “store chocolate?” “I’m going to eat my chocolate!”
If you must store chocolate, here are some tips.
DON'T REFRIGERATE! Chocolates absorb odors very easily. Also, excessive moisture in the fridge can cause sugar bloom, meaning the sugar rises to the surface, causing discoloration. Chocolates need a cool, dry place away from sunlight and strong odors. When chocolates are kept at a consistent temperature less than 70°F with humidity less than 55% (same as my wine storage), the cocoa solids and cocoa butter emulsion will stay stable for months. Solid milk chocolates will last nine months and dark chocolates will last for a year. Filled chocolates, such as truffles, will last about four months.
If you need to keep chocolates for a longer period of time, I recommend freezing them in an airtight container. When you're ready to eat them, allow them to thaw inside the container before enjoying. Opening the container before they thaw will expose them to the air and cause them to bloom and/or perspire. Always eat chocolate at room temperature, especially truffles.
Pairing Chocolate With Wine:
I use the same theory when I pair food with wine. Lightly flavored foods with lighter-bodied wines and fuller flavored foods with full-bodied wines. Lets try out my theory with chocolate and wine. The stronger the chocolate, the more full-bodied the wine. Lighter-bodied wines with lighter flavored chocolates. I seek wines that have the same flavor profile as the chocolate or sometimes I look for wines that contrast the chocolate flavors, just for a different experience.
Dark chocolate is usually 50%-75% cacao and has strong complex flavors with nuances that are nutty, spicy, floral, earthy, and has a balanced aftertaste that is not too sweet. Considering these flavor profiles, dark chocolate pairs well with full-bodied red wines: such as a Cabernet Sauvignon (including Bordeaux), which highlight the fruity and peppery notes in the chocolate, or a Zinfandel, which brings out the chocolate’s spicy subtleties. I also like a Tawny or Vintage Port with truffles or dark chocolate desserts.
Milk Chocolate: A bar of milk chocolate, with its milder, sweeter flavors, could be matched with a light-bodied Merlot or Pinot Noir. I have matched dessert wines or sparkling wines, including Champagne, with mild milk chocolates, and especially strawberries dipped in milk chocolate- yummy! A Ruby or Tawny Port also works.
White Chocolate: Has sweet flavor notes including vanilla, caramel and cream. Moscato is very popular these days, whether it be the still or sparkling varieties. Since the white chocolate tends to be buttery in flavor, try a Sherry as a match. I have enjoyed the sweetness of Rieslings and the spiciness of Gewurztraminer to match the honey flavors of white chocolate.
On the coldest of winter nights, add a little spice to the chocolate selection by including chili-infused chocolates. The extra kick of cayenne and cinnamon in this chocolate will match well with a fruity, fortified red wine, such as a Ruby Port. You can balance the heat with a little sweet.
Options are endless when it comes to choosing a chocolate covered caramel. The buttery caramel with a touch of natural sea salt pairs well with wines such as a Hungarian Tokaji or a dry Oloroso Sherry. These wines both have a fruity and nutty bouquet, which complement the caramel.
Chocolate Panned (Covered) Nuts:
If these are included on the pairings plate, be sure to have a back-up supply. Guests won’t be able won’t be able to eat just one of these irresistible sweet-and-salty confections (except yours truly who has a severe nut allergy). The saltiness of the nuts marry well with a medium dry sherry, which is slightly sweet, and will accent the sweetness from the chocolate.
There is no one correct way to create a chocolate and wine pairing. With a little help from your favorite wine shop, the possibilities are endless.
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