Fri 4 Jul 2008
It’s one of those commonplace assessments in wine and food matching that red wine and chocolate make a divinely shivery marriage on the taste buds, but it’s not always, and in fact is rather rarely, true. Many red wines are too tannic and oaky to pair with chocolate. Milk chocolate and almost any red wine make a Big Bummer. Best bets are varieties of dark chocolate, with a higher content of cacao than milk chocolate, with a lushly fruity, even “jammy” red wine that balances tannin with acid, late-harvest zinfandels, for example, or uncomplicated ruby ports. (What used to be called “ruby” port is now designated “reserve.”)
We put some red wine to the test with a selection of the “exotic candy bars” from Vosges-Haut Chocolat, which I had been wanting to try anyway. Despite its French name, Vosges Haut-Chocolate is based in Chicago — and we were all fooled by Haagan Dazs, too, weren’t we? –the creation of Katrina Markoff, an American who studied in France. She brings to the creation of chocolate candies a wild spirit of innovation and experimentation. The manufacturing plant in Chicago is certified USDA organic; the company’s “green statement” (vosgeschocolate.com) is as long as its catalog of treats. There are two Vosges Boutiques in Chicago, two in New York and one in Las Vegas, as well as a host of retailers that carry much of the company’s line; trickling down, as it were, some Vosges products are also available in grocery stores, including Fresh Market, which is where I bought five of the “exotic candy bar” line. These are $7 for a 3-ounce package, way more than for a Milky Way at the 7Eleven but not much more than other specialty chocolate bars that have broken into American consciousness with the explosion of “plantation” and other “single origin” chocolate bars.
A word on nomenclature: The federal government regulates the use and terminology that applies to the amount of cacao in chocolate candy. (Cacao is the ground seed of the cacao tree — called kakaw by the Maya — from which chocolate and cocoa derive.)
*Milk chocolate must contain 10 percent unsweetened chocolate, 12 percent mild solids and 3.39 percent milk fat; if you’re thinking, “Whoa, there ain’t much chocolate in a Hershey bar,” you’re right.
*Sweet chocolate must contain 15 to 34 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk fat.
*Bittersweet chocolate must contain 35 to 99 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk fat. Generally, what’s called semisweet chocolate has 35 to about 45 percent unsweetened chocolate and bitter sweet has over 50 percent.
Here are the Vosges “exotic chocolate bar” items that we tried:
*The notorious “Mo’s Bacon Bar,” which combines what Vosges designates “deep milk chocolate,” with applewood smoked bacon and alder wood smoked salt. Why “deep milk chocolate”? It rates 41 percent cacao, which qualifies it for the bittersweet category; this seems disingenuous. Anyway, the candy bar is weirdly compelling, with a sort of roasted fat-on-fat quality that achieves an acme of decadence. along with a tiny bite from the smoky salt that feels illicit.
*The “Barcelona Bar” features “deep milk chocolate” — the text explains that it’s “just milk chocolate … blended with a bit of dark chocolate” — with hickory smoked almonds and gray sea salt. This is a good candy bar but not my favorite of this group. I’m just really a dark chocolate guy, and I thought that the smoky-flavored almonds would have tasted better in a robe of darker chocolate. The sea salt gives it a gentle savory snap.
*The “Goji Bar,” also featuring the 41 percent cacao “deep milk chocolate,” was one of our favorite selections. We don’t have space here to go into the controversies that surround what in the West are traditionally called wolfberries; suffice it to say that all those packages in health food stores that tout the benefits of “Tibetan goji berries” are barking up the wrong bush, since goji berries don’t grow in Tibet. (See an incredibly detailed report here.) In any case, the combination of the slightly dark chocolate; the slightly tart berries, which taste rather like, um, cranberries, raspberries, raisins and apples altogether; and the arid, almost puritan bite of the salt made an enticing and paradoxical bit of candy.
*The “Creole Bar” piles on the chocolate experience: Sao Thome “select origin” bittersweet chocolate, 70 percent cacao; espresso, cocoa nibs; and New Orleans style chicory; in other words, a chocolate and coffee extravaganza. Nothing subtle here, just intense, jazzed up flavors that course through your mouth like caffeine a-gogo.
*Our favorite of these items was the “Red Fire Bar,” a concoction of dark chocolate, 55 percent cacao; ancho and chipotle chilies; and Ceylonese cinnamon. Wow, you can feel the heat from the chilies, and their subtle qualities of smoke and tobacco, with undercurrents of dry but slightly sweet cinnamon, which has an effect that’s sensual yet almost medicinal. A risky experience and a great one.
Now the wines:
*Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto. A very attractive ready-to-drink port, deep and rich and mellow, with spicy, grapey flavors of black currant and plum; sweet at the beginning, but tannins grip the finish. Imported by Premium Port Wines, San Francisco. Very good+. About $21.
*Ridge Zinfandel Essense 2003, Stone Ranch, Alexander Valley. At almost five years old, despite the residual sugar of 10 percent by volume, this is close to a dry wine; fruit is black, boldly spicy, rich and wild with touches of blueberry and boysenberry jam. Startling acid activates a plush texture. Excellent. About $30 for a half-bottle.
*Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui 2006, Piedmont. Always charming, always intense; mildly effervescent; strawberry and raspberry, orange rind and Bazooka bubble gum, rich, ripe and juicy but quite dry, lively, vibrant. Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville N.Y. Very good+. About $24.
*Inniskillin Cabernet Franc ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula. This is one of the great unusual wines of the world. Spiced and macerated peaches, orange rind, strawberry and red currants; hints of apple skin and wild berry; deeply funky; a glorious texture, satin, folded with silk, wrapped in velvet. Imported by Icon Estates, Napa, Ca. Excellent. About $95 for a half-bottle.
The most versatile of the wines with the chocolate bars were the Graham’s Six Grapes Port and the Rosa Regale 2006. In fact, as far as the chocolate bars were concerned the port could do no wrong; there was irresistible synergy between that sweet, potent jamminess and the various elements of the chocolate bars, though I like the combination with the Creole Bar and Red Fire Bar best. Actually, though, the Mo’s Bacon Bar was a difficult match with all the wines; it was just too unabashedly rich.
The Inniskillin was terrific with the Goji Bar, as was the Rosa Regali; the latter’s slight effervescence cut through the powerful richness of most of the bars. The Ridge Essence seemed to capture some essence of the Red Fire Bar, though, surprisingly, it didn’t perform as well with the other bars.
So, chocolate and red wine? Yes, if it’s the right kind of chocolate and the right sort of wine. You can only rely on trial and error, as we did in this experiment, with four red wines that I plucked from the shelf (or fridge) because they were there.
Readers, we did it for you.