A Perfect Partnership

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An article published in the May 2014 edition of Classic Wine magazine SA on pairing wine and chocolate.

Despite the long-ago, almost statutory regime of ways to combine food and wine, Mike Alexander explores the palate sensation of pairing. With an astronomical expansion, there is an increasing number of reasons to revisit such hard-and-fast rules in the seemingly never-ending effort to find the ultimate tasting experience…

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Deeply ingrained in Michel Garrigue, a master chocolate-maker (chocolatier), is indeed the art of creating chocolate, something he has done for the last 40 years, along with a great love of wine. Despite being the fourth generation of his family to be involved in this craft, he has lost none of his passion for product or profession.

Both his parents and grand parents were all chocolatier-pâtissiers; still a common combination of trades in France today. Born and bred in Bordeaux, chocolate is not Michel’s only passion. For his 12th birthday his father opened an expensive bottle of Château Lynch Bages, a Grand Cru Pauilliac, and began introducing him to the intricacies of this region’s most famous produce. Michel describes himself as, ‘having been born with one foot in chocolate and one foot in a wine barrel.’

When his turn came to take over the family business, Michel took a long hard look at it, and decided to abandon the patisserie side altogether, concentrating instead on broadening the range of chocolate that he provides his customers. He now supplies chocolate from Venezuela, Mexico, Madagascar and Equador, as well as blends of the above. Along with his wife, he constantly experiments with unusual flavour combinations, including chocolate with basil, wild black truffles or sea salt.

Chocolate and wine synergies

His real desire, however, has been to combine his passion for chocolate with his passion for wine. As the knowledge of both subjects grew, Michel began to see many similarities. Like wine, cocoa is reflective of the terroir upon which it is grown, the harvesting processes it goes through and the manipulation of the material once it begins to be turned into chocolate. Just as grapes need to ferment, cocoa needs to go through a similar process known as mucilage. The types of cocoa planted, with names such as Forasteros, Criollos and Trinitarios bring differing qualities to the chocolate in much the same way as different cepages, such as Merlot, Syrah or Cabernet bring different qualities to wine. As with wine, the blending of chocolate is a skill all of its own, requiring an intricate knowledge to bring forth the best nuances of aroma and flavour.

Michel was convinced that the two products shared so many qualities that it would be a shame not to try to find some way of combining them that would expose the finer characteristics of both. His early experiments met with little success. When he mixed the wine and chocolate together the wine diluted the chocolate causing it to lose its consistency, while the wine lost its flavour. Though disappointing, however, those early experiments were not all a total waste. He came away with a mixture of wine and chocolate called ‘confiture du vin’ that is used as a supplement to stews and is still a popular seller today. He next experimented with grapes macerated in a Merlot Grand Crus and then dipped in chocolate also remain popular today, but Michel was still not satisfied, believing that he had failed to retain the best qualities inherent in both products.

He came to the conclusion that the wine and chocolate would perform best if they were to be paired but not mixed together. By keeping them separate Michel was confident they could be used to enhance each other without compromising on the individual qualities of either. To do this he set out to pair some of his best chocolate with fine wine. Anything less he believed would be detrimental to both.

To begin with, the wine producers were skeptical but Michel persisted. He was experimenting at a time when the rules about what wine could be paired with what food were still quite rigid and his plans were, at first, regarded as being too adventurous. Undeterred, he started staging his own tastings and was soon drawing an audience from the many clients who appreciated both products. Slowly at first, the wine estates began to realise that there might be some merit to what he was proposing and invitations started to trickle in from some of the better-known winemakers to do demonstrations on their estates.

Wine flavours with chocolate savours

Being a true Bordelaise, Michel favours the wine from this region. He feels that wine like Château Haut Selve 2009 from Graves, with its strong red fruit flavours and traces of vanilla and oak, pair well with the strong dark chocolate of Madagascar. Château Labégorce 2004 from Margaux has a complex bitter cherry and smoky aspect that he regularly combines with the chocolate of Mexico. He is quick to point out however that both wine and chocolate are very subjective and he prefers to offer different options and allow people to reach their own conclusions. At a tasting he normally provides three wines, all of at least Grand Cru level, along with four different types of chocolate. By experimenting with the many different permutations his clients inevitably end up with very extensive wine notes and he says none of them are ever the same. This delights Michel as he finds it always leads to healthy debate in a relaxed atmosphere but also helps people to learn to trust their own instincts more.

There are many chocolatiers in France and it is important to note that true chocolate connoisseurs can be nearly as demanding and as knowledgeable about their product as wine lovers are. Michel’s chocolate sells for anything between three and five times as much as the mass-produced chocolate you will find on the shelves in the local supermarket. In order to survive it is important that he has a discerning and loyal clientele and it is clear that Michel has exactly that. The French are often very demanding about what they eat and drink and nowhere more so than in Bordeaux. It is not unusual for clients to enter his tiny store, on Bordeaux’s Place Gambetta, that has been a chocolate shop for 99 years and to start discussing the pros and cons of Mexican cocoa over that of Venezuela, for example.

Today, wine pairing is much more adventurous and less proscriptive than it was in years gone by, and the rigid rules that once dominated this area are beginning to dissolve. More and more, producers, wine critics and sommeliers are coming to realise that combinations can now be much more broad spectrum than they have been in the past. Just as it is no longer seen as sacrilege to pair white meat with a smoother red wine or to have a red meat with Rosé, why shouldn’t we now enjoy chocolate and wine in association with one another.

Guidelines, not rules

Although not keen to dictate when it comes to pairings, Michel did offer some suggestions as to some of his favourite combinations and what he believes will provide the most enjoyable taste experiences when combining wine and chocolate. Firstly, he recommends that the chocolate should always be less sweet than the wine it is being paired with. It is preferable to take the combination as an aperitif rather than after a meal and, just as one should move from lighter wines to darker as the tasting progresses the same advice should apply to chocolate. Like wine the tannins are normally higher in the darker chocolate. A small taste of a chocolate high in tannins will negate slightly the tannin in the wine and allow the fruity flavors more definition.

He was interested in the South African reds that he feels would pair well with rich, dark chocolates from Venzuela. Like most Bordelaise, he is fiercely proud of Bordeaux wines and feels that a good tannic structure such as Rubicon from Meerlust or Cabernet Sauvignon wines like those of the Rust en Vrede Estate would provide similar chocolate pairing sensations. He recommends breaking the chocolate into small bite-sized pieces, placing one on the tongue and allowing it to dissolve before sipping the wine.

Although Maitre Chocolatiers such as Michell do not believe that white chocolate is really chocolate at all, it is still worth pairing with a sweeter wine, such as a Simonsig Gewurtztraminer or a semi sweet sparkling like a KWV or Simonsig. The main rule is to be adventurous and remember that there is no universally perfect pairing. Chocolate and wine are two of great passions of life…

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