Do wine and chocolate mix? A few tips on pairing

Pairing wine and food is often a puzzle, and the question of what wine goes best with chocolate seems to come up fairly often. For some, chocolate and red wine are both so delightful that any combination will be pure pleasure, but many experts claim chocolate conflicts with any wine.

Here are a few tips on how to enjoy both to the fullest:

As with other pairings, the first concern is balance. The wine shouldn't overwhelm the food, and the food shouldn't be too much for the wine. Real pairing is about creating a harmony, so both elements can bring the other's best notes forward.

If someone says to me, "I need a good red wine to go with chocolate," I'm immediately engaged. Some wines might work, quite a few certainly do not.

Table Wine The acidity in wine makes sweet chocolate taste sour. The tannin in wine conflicts with tannins in chocolate, especially dark or bittersweet chocolate. If you want to drink red wine with chocolate, it has to be a fruity red that will allow chocolate its room at the deeper end of the taste spectrum and supply a refreshing berry note at the lighter end. White wines are out, and milk or white chocolates will make most red wine taste bitter.

Zinfandel can sometimes work because of its lack of tannin, its multiberry sweetness, and low acid, but it often has high alcohol as well, and that's a problem. A light, fruity cabernet perhaps, or a simple Barbera, but it's hard to avoid both tannin and acidity in red wines. A number of red wines bill themselves as sweet, but if you're a dry wine drinker they may seem like a surrender to you. Brachetto, a sweet, sparkling wine from northwestern Italy, is worthy complement to a medium dark chocolate. Lambrusco used to be universally sweet, but now we see some versions that display a balancing freshness, so if you try a Lambrusco make sure it's a sweeter version. A fruit-based wine can also work, especially if the chocolate has some nut or fruit in it. St. Croix vineyards has a raspberry infusion, as does Bonny Doon (Framboise), both well suited to dark chocolate.

Madeira, Port, or Sherry Choose a wine that is intended for after-dinner consumption. Port, especially the tawny or ruby styles, works for the same reason a fruity table red might work; more berry flavors and less tannin and acid. A very dark, bitter chocolate would stand up to a vintage port, which has tannin but also layers of rich sweetness.

If your like sherry you might try a sweeter amantillado or cream sherry, or a Pedro Ximenez (PX) which has a very concentrated, raisin-like character. These would be especially good with a chocolate dessert that contains nuts or berries. Dry sherry will cause a problem unless its with white chocolate, nuts, and a salty element.

Madeira, like port and sherry, has its dry styles. Sercial and Rainwater Madeiras are nutty and more acidic, suited to light- to medium-bodied savory food but not chocolate. Go for a Bual, a Malmsey, or a Madeira that characterizes itself as "rich" or "sweet." With Madeira there is always an undertone of acidity, but the sweet styles are successful with medium to very dark, high-cocoa chocolate.

Vin Santo and Vin doux naturel Vin Santo, the "holly wine" of Tuscany, is made from dried white grapes, aged in barrels to an amber gold. Sweet, concentrated, nutty, caramelized, and oxidized, it is a very good partner to lighter chocolate desserts. Orange and black Muscat (domestic versions are available from Quady vineyards of California), Muscat Baumes-de-Venise or Muscat de Rivesaltes, both vin doux naturel from south central France, would be exotic and interesting, probably better with lighter chocolate desserts than straight up chocolate.

Vin doux naturel, "naturally sweetened wine," has been around since the 13th century. It is an aged and lightly fortified wine that can be made with either white grapes, Ugni blanc, trebbiano, muscat , or grenache noir.By far the most successful wine with almost any chocolate, be it dessert or an assortment of fine chunk chocolates, is Banyuls, a Grenache-based vin doux naturel from the very farthest, southeastern corner of France. The vineyards are on terraced cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, backed up on the border with Spain. The harvested grapes are often raisined and therefore quite concentrated. The wine is fortified with alcohol while the skins are soaking, creating a rich interaction that lends Banyuls a unique complexity. It is heady and textured, featuring dried fruit flavors, dark brown sugar, black cherry, and toffee and about 16% ABV.

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