“I’ll try the Madeira” I said to the sommelier. After retrieving a new bottle from the back of the wine bar, she poured a glass of the deep red wine and set it down. As I made a motion to begin my first sip, I heard: “wait a second; I have something for you to try.” A small dish was placed in front of me, filled with brownish-black disks. “Its chocolate,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Oh, of course,” I responded, not totally understanding the pair of wine and plain pieces of chocolate. Then, as I tasted the bitterness of the chocolate combined with the smooth sweetness of the Madeira, I began to appreciate the origin of the slight smirk flashed by the sommelier. What a perfect match.
I suppose up to that point I had considered chocolate as a dessert item that, paired with a sweet fortified wine, would overpower the palate in the way that an entire bag of Halloween candy would. In other words, when enjoying a lone piece of quality chocolate, I lived in a milk chocolate-centered universe. But, as I discovered that day, not all chocolate, on its own, has to be sweet or even semi-sweet. And conversely, not all dark chocolate enjoyed during dessert sessions must be a mere ingredient accompanying creams, cakes, and fruit. Sometimes small pieces of otherwise bitter dark chocolate can be the right dessert when paired with the right wine.
When selecting chocolates to pair with your dessert wine, you should typically be searching for one important number: the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate. Usually, this percentage is marked clearly on the label or box containing the piece of chocolate. The amount of cocoa dictates how sweet the chocolate will be. For example, 30% cocoa and 70% sugar (these percentages are in general terms; emulsifying agents, milk and vanilla are also added at times), present in most milk chocolates, make for a sweet and creamy taste that does not compliment dessert wines as well.
For dark chocolates, the cocoa percentage ranges closer to 70%, and with any decrease or increase from that mark, the chocolate will become sweeter or bitter based on the change. There’s also the option of selecting a dark chocolate infused with cinnamon, lavender, pepper, and other flavors found at many specialty chocolatier shops. The choice then really has everything to do with the selection of wine to pair with the chocolate. I recommend the lighter, sweet fruit aspects of Madeira to match up with a very dark, over 70% cocoa chocolate. However, most wine shops and restaurants don't stock Madeira as often as Tawny or Ruby Port; although Port serves as a proper substitute. Whatever you choose, make certain that a floral or spicy chocolate bar compliments the tasting notes of the fortified wine.
In closing, although this column is dedicated to discussion of fortified wines, there should always be some commentary on how to heighten the enjoyment and experience of those wines. Quality dark chocolate pieces, truly compliment sweet fortified wines. So go to a specialty foods shop and experiment with pieces of various dark chocolates with your next round of dessert wine. You’ve done cheese plates; why not chocolate plates?