Travel Guide to Portugal

Port Wine and Chocolate

By Ryan Opaz

Question time for Catavino readers: Who out there loves wine and chocolate? Although this may sound like the most obvious pairing in the world, it’s not. In my many years of both selling and writing about wine, I’ve heard numerous debates on the subject, both for and against this rather contentious chocolate and wine pairing. But among the numerous voices, one element always remains consistent, people either love it or hate it.

Chocolate can dramatically range in flavor from being the sweetest substance on earth to a thick, bitter and earthy experience. When I was young, I hated chocolate with a passion. The only chocolate I was familiar with was that sticky soft icing on birthday cakes – overly sweet and flavorless. Likewise, I never really fell for candy bars, Hershey kisses or any other manufactured chocolate flavored treat out there. It wasn’t until college when my eyes opened to authentic chocolate. I believe it was Michel Cluizel’s chocolates that tipped the scales for me, when I realized that I really did like chocolate. Slightly sweet and intensely bitter with an earthiness that revealed dark fruits, minerals and exotic spices, I loved it. Like wine, it was not immediately apparent, but over time, it rewarded those with patience. I remember having an epiphany when I realized that pure chocolate could be so magical. And as a result, I started to explore cocoa as a spice, in moles, and dry rubs on beef. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Fast forward to my life with wine. When I started to explore wine, I really never thought to put chocolate and wine together. Chocolate, having tannins and often bitter, seemed an odd bed fellow for a dry Cabernet. Because my learning had taught me to complement flavors, tannin on tannin seemed really odd to me. It wasn’t until I found St.Croix Vineyards Raspberry dessert wine that I started to explore the combination more profoundly. The sweetness balanced the bitter chocolate I loved so much (70% cocoa and higher), and I found that the combination was the perfect potion for wooing women – or so I hoped.

Finally in 2003, Gabriella and I found ourselves in Portugal. Up until that point, I knew that I liked Port wine, but I really didn’t know much about it. This all changed when we tasted more port in those three weeks than I had of table wines in the past year combined! Tawnies, Vintage, Rubys, LBVs, White, the list goes on and on. We fell in love with it, so much so, that by the end of our 3 weeks, we hauled 2 cases of assorted bottles back to the States in our carry on bags(when it was still not a crime to do so!). It was quite the experience! It was also shortly after this that we started to experiment with dark chocolate and Port. In our house, we found that we always had a bottle of Port open and usually a bar or two of chocolate, whereby provoking many evenings experimenting with the two. For us, it was perfect. I remember at the time mentioning it to some other Port lovers and having them decry it as sacrilege and claiming it didn’t work. We didn’t care. We loved it!

That brings us to today, or rather the other night. I decided it had been awhile since we last paired the two, and so Iwent out and bought a bar of milk chocolate (not a favorite, but I wanted to compare) and 70% dark chocolate (sadly a poor example of good chocolate). With 7 bottles of Port in front of us, we tasted each with milk chocolate and then with the dark chocolate. The results were telling. Without a second breathe, we quickly agreed to throw away the milk chocolate. In this case, it was overly sweet and fought for attention with the Ports like a little kid whining at his parents knees. The combination was thick on the tongue and distracting as we sipped the beautiful wines in front of us. To clarify, the majority of the wines were LBVs, but we agreed that the milk chocolate would most likely taint any port you put in front of it.

So we moved on to the poorly made dark chocolate. Despite its faults, the pairing was much better, and in fact, beautiful at times. The lack of sweetness and the intense earthy tannins seemed to combine effortlessly with the Port, making for a experience that was all around, well, yummy!

I have to say,though, we did buy another block of a higher grade dark chocolate yesterday which we are looking forward to pairing with the remainder of Vintage and Tawny ports we have left to try. Maybe I’ll add some more comments here after we taste through them, but I will say that I do love the Port and Chocolate experience. How about you? Do you like chocolate with any wine? Do you think we’re crazy? Tell us in the comments!

Ryan Opaz

Extra thought: Here in Spain, we have the infamous chocolate and churros. Churros are basically, deep fried dough, while the chocolate is a molten concoction to deep them in. I wonder if Port would pair well, and if so, which one? Hmmm time for some research…

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