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Creating The Perfect Blend of Flavors for Small Summer Get-Togethers

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As we approach the summer months in a post-COVID world in which small gatherings will be more common, unexpected combinations of wine, cheese and chocolate provide a great opportunity to explore and add a new dimension to the get-togethers we are all excited to resume.

Getting outdoors in the fresh evening air, enjoying a small group of friends, a great playlist and a well-curated offering of foods and flavors can help to put the shelter-in-place blues behind you.

Let's break down some new and interesting food combinations that will help make your gatherings a bit more memorable.

Wine and Cheese, But How About Wine & Chocolate?

Can Wine, Chocolate and Cheese go together?  Like many things in life, the answer is ‘it depends’. To successfully pair chocolate with wine and then with cheese, it’s best to start with the wine.  The big reason we don’t see chocolate and wine regularly paired is because we often overlook a very simple but important rule.  Follow this simple rule you will wonder why you skipped the chocolate all these years.

What’s the rule? Opposites attract. Flavor profiles that are too close to one another will leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. Both literally and figuratively. In contrast, flavors with distinct flavor profiles complement each other, enhancing the elements of each on the palate.

Bitterness is caused by a chemical family called ‘polyphenols,’ naturally occurring plant-based compounds found in both wine and chocolate. These chemical compounds have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other healthy properties that make the foods containing them worth keeping in your diet.  The polyphenols found in grapes (which become wine) are mostly tannins. Regardless of the form, they all taste bitter. 

Let’s first look how this applies to wine. A ‘dry wine’ means it lacks the chemical composition that activates taste buds that are oriented to sensing sweet. The greater the sugar content, the more taste buds highlight sweetness. Dry wines have less residual sugar and register as less sweet on the palate.  Think of a dry and crisp Sauvignon Blanc.  Dry red wines also have less sugar but can trigger bitter and astringent profiles from the tannins in the grape skins.          

Picking the Right Chocolate to Pair with Your Wine

Now that you have the low down on wine selection, let’s turn to the chocolate. Generally, the darker a piece of chocolate is, the more bitter it will be due to the higher cacao content and less sugar as a percentage of the total. Chemically, sugar percentage neutralizes or balances the bitterness. 

When planning a wine, cheese and chocolate offering, above all else, don’t match the polyphenols! For instance, don’t pair a more bitter dark chocolate with a big, tannic cabernet sauvignon, a Zinfandel or even a Malbec. Also, if dark chocolate is your thing, be sure to skip the Brut Champagne at the liquor store; the high acidity level of this beverage will ruin virtually every chocolate with the exception of the sweetest milk chocolate. Remember, pairing a bold wine with a flavorful chocolate is fine, just don’t match bitter to bitter.

A Few Simple Tricks to Ensure Success

Remember this simple phrase and you won’t go wrong: Sweetest is Always Easiest. However, always keep the wine slightly sweeter than the chocolate. This is an important rule of thumb.

There are some excellent late-harvest white wines (like ice wine) and sweet red options which work well, but to look like a real pro, go with a fortified wine such as a port, sherry or Madeira. If you seek to really impress, go a little obscure with something like a Banyuls. This is a fortified wine made from Grenache grapes in southern France. While bitter chocolates and Brut are not good party combos, a Champagne Doux or Moscato d’Asti with a moderately sweet milk chocolate can be a winner, especially on a warm summer evening.

Pair lighter chocolate with lighter-bodied wine, and stronger chocolate with more full-bodied wine. If you’re planning to serve a milk chocolate, try a light-bodied pinot noir or even a fruit-forward merlot. Pair darker chocolate or chocolate with CBD additives with a jammy Syrah—especially an Australian shiraz—or even an intense red zinfandel. Most sommeliers will warn you to stay away from the highly tannic cabernets and petite syrahs, which, unless you are very adventurous, is a good rule of thumb.

Finally, the Cheese!

Now that we have wine and chocolate down, let’s turn to the cheese. Glorious cheese.

Cheese is an essential part of this glorious trifecta. why? One word. Polyphenols.  Cheese’s natural creamy characteristics and wide spectrum of flavor profiles can add significantly to the gastronomic experience of chocolate and wine.  That is, if we follow the same general rules as we have with the wine and the chocolate.

Knowing this, what are some solid and simple wine, cheese and chocolate combinations?

Milder milk chocolate is excellent with a sweet riesling (remember, keep the wine sweeter than the chocolate). A good Riesling will pair well with pretty much any Swiss cheese due to its milder flavor profile.

Sweeter milk chocolate will pair well with port, and combining port or sherry with a sharp cheddar will be a hit.

Dark chocolate will balance nicely with a Red Zinfandel or even a brandy and both go well with either a Blue Cheese or a Stilton.

Actually, dark chocolate and blue cheese pair perfectly with port as well. The possibilities are nearly endless. Start with the chocolate. Your chocolate selection will set the tone for everything else.  Once you have your chocolate selected, it is time to visit your favorite wine store and ask for some guidance based on the flavor profile information we’ve provided here. Once you have the wine, add in cheese and a few other  complimenting items such as bread, nuts and fruit.  Look for balancing textures such as crisp breads and crackers to offset soft cheese and fruits which compliment the flavor profile you have selected.  Also, remember the visual component!  Your selections should play to all five senses. 

Paying attention to these simple rules and you are sure to come home with some winners, which means that you and your guests will have an unforgettable evening filled with culinary delights. 

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