Distil show precisely on partnering Italian wines with a range of high-end Italian chocolates.
It was a lovingly assembled display, showcasing the variety of both, but for me there were two stand-out wines, which seemed to sit well with a variety of chocs: one was the oddly named Ben Rye’ Passito di Pantelleria DOC 2008 from Donnafugata, a deep yet fresh sweet wine, made from sun-dried Zibibbo grapes on the Sicillian island of Pantelleria. It has an astonishing apricot nose but there are also chocolate notes in its depths. The palate is full of raisins.
The other revelation was Cocchi’s Barolo Chinato, a wine that has been infused with quinine from Calissaja cinchona bark, plus an array of herbs and spices, including rhubarb root, ginger, star anise, citrus peel, gentian, fennel, juniper and cardamom seed. This is an interesting concept because most vermouths, even red ones, are based on white wine: here is one based on the noble Barolo grape. The concoction apparently dates back to 1891, when Tuscan pastry chef Giulio Cocchi came to the Asti region and was inspired by the local vermouth industry to create his own.* The formula for Cocchi’s version is complex—there is a handwritten copy in a bank vault—and allegedly marries the Piemontese vermouth tradition with that of the herbal infusions of Tuscan monasteries. So popular was it that by the 1920s Cocchi had a chain of Barolo Chinato bars across Italy and beyond; yet by the 1960s it had fallen out of fashion and the company, which also makes Asti Spumante, was bought by the Bava Winery in 1977.
By chance I was later at a tasting of Lagavulin 16-year-old single malt whisky at 69 Colebrook Row and a pairing with chocolate was also suggested. So I decided to round up some other likely candidates and have a tasting. The chocolate we used was nothing too obscure or rarefied: we started with some humble Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, included a couple of filled ones from Gü (liquid caramel and praline) and then some majestic Venezuelan 72% dark chocolate from Willie’s World Class Cacao in Devon. I later added three from Lindt: their A Touch of Vanilla white chocolate, dark chocolate with A Touch of Sea Salt and dark chocolate with caramel.**
If you search online for wine suggestions for chocolate you’ll come up with pretty much every type—even Champagne—which I guess goes to show how much variety there is in the world of chocolate. Red wine is often cited so we chose a modest Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon from Isla Negra, plus a rosé version of the same. Then I added some port (William Pickering port from Berry Bros & Rudd, which is actually a tawny), which has always struck me as a reasonable match in the past, some Cocchi Americano, another quinated wine from Cocchi, white this time, plus, as an afterthought, some rum, both bog-standard Captain Morgan and some Flor de Cana 7-year-old from Nicaragua
Cadbury’s Dairy Milk
The Isla Negra rosé went surprisingly well—not a match made in heaven but it didn’t quarrel, which must be due to the relatively sweet, fruity nature of rosé as a rule. By contrast the red wine was rather foul: somehow the combination of the particular fruit of the wine and the chocolate reminded me of a urinal. The Cocchi Americano didn’t work, as the chocolate is not bitter enough to balance the quinine. Moving on to rum, the Captain Morgan wasn’t quite there, but then it’s not a very good rum, with the distinct sourness of poor quality spirit. The Flor de Cana made much more sense. It always strikes me as quite a sweet rum, but here that vanishes leaving a fairly balanced combo, with the burnt sugar quality harmonising with the malty toasted milk powder of the chocolate. With the port the sweetness match is pretty much right there. Quite successful, I think, with each side retaining its character and not being skewed. The milk choc’s toasty qualities are able to shine. With the Ben Rye’, however, while the sweetness balance is OK, the wine somehow makes the chocolate seem coarse. The Barolo Chinato, like the Americano, found that the chocolate was too sweet to make a good match, though it isn’t too bad either, even if it again shows up the poor quality of the chocolate. There is definitely something chocolate-friendly about this wine. Lagavulin: hopeless—not sweet at all, so it seems harsh with the sweet chocolate, but also its strong malty, smoky, iodine high notes clash horribly.
Top match: Flor de Cana rum, though the Chinato does come across as capable
This chocolate is hard, dark, bitter and smoky, with a hint of coffee. The table wines were no good at all, the cabernet sauvignon tasting cheaper and nastier than it really is. Again the Captain Morgan is made to seem the poor quality rum that it is, but the Flor de Cana again works quite well, with the rum’s burnt sugar qualities sitting well with the dry smokiness of the chocolate. The rum is dried out but what’s left balances well. But this serious chocolate made the port seem sugary and little else, and likewise the Ben Rye’ came across as too juicy and sweet, making the chocolate seem somehow cheesy. The Lagavulin should work but doesn’t really: again the iodine quality turns into something unnerving. This, on the other hand, is where the Chinato really comes into its own. The bitterness stands up well and the aromatic rootiness balances excellently with the earthy smoke of the chocolate.
Top match: Barolo Chinato, with Flor de Cana perfectly workable too
Gü Chocolate Praline Truffles
These are sweet, creamy and nutty. I thought the Flor de Cana worked quite well but Mrs H. was less convinced. I also thought the port balanced pretty competently, though again Mrs H. thinks it’s not greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not convinced about the Ben Rye’, with the light fruitiness of the wine seeming exaggerated. Not a disaster but I don’t think it flatters the chocolate. I was a bit surprised by this, as at the original Italian presentation I made a note that this wine went well with hazelnuts—we tried it with Guido Gobino’s Maximo. The Barolo Chinato makes another good combo. The gooey sweetness of the chocolate emphasizes the bitterness of the wine, yet somehow it still works. Not really convinced about the Lagavulin; it’s not too bad but still those iodine flavours of the whisky mutate into something disturbingly off-putting.
Top match: Nothing shines but the Chinato still stands tall and the rum and port are competent
These have a gooey caramel centre with a little sea salt added. They seemed particularly sweet. I felt the port again emerged as still a pretty good all-rounder; likewise the Flor de Cana, though for some reason the sweetness of the chocolate doesn’t sit so happily this time. The Ben Rye’ is also dried out. Even the Chinato struggled though was still competent. The Lagavulin, however, decided to come into its own at the point. Even though the sweetness levels are so different, this is the best pairing yet with the whisky. Clearly the nuttiness and the burnt-sugar caramel works well with the smoky, peaty iodine, and perhaps the sea salt is a natural pairing too. With a less sickly salted caramel this could be a really eye-opening combo.
Top match: Lagavulin 16-year-old
Lindt A Touch of Vanilla
I felt that this would be the one most likely to go with the Ben Rye’ and it was, though not quite as well as I’d hoped—the wine is still nicer on its own. But both parties stand up for themselves and they do spotlight aspects of flavour in each other. Port clashes nastily, evoking an off flavour in the booze. Rum was not at its best either this time. The Barolo Chinato was not an obvious choice but again it worked pretty well; its bitterness was pronounced against the creamy vanilla of the chocolate, but a nice cinnamon note was conjured from the wine. But still not really a “match”. I even tried Adnams’ North Cove Oak Aged Vodka, to see if the vanilla wood notes would work; it’s quite an interesting combination, but the vodka is a bit too dry and fierce (it’s 50% ABV) and sucks the life from the chocolate. And the Lagavulin ends up tasting of cheese.
Top match: Ben Rye’
Lindt A Touch of Sea Salt
The salt isn’t a massive presence in this product. And the dark chocolate is only 47% cocoa solids, so it’s still quite sweet. It works remarkably well with the Ben Rye’, perhaps because the sweetness levels are about the same. But not really an ideal fit. Port again sits comfortably alongside and the rum is nice too, its relative dryness coming across as refreshing rather than clashing. The Barolo Chinato was also back in its element—I think that dark chocolate has a sort of “powdery” dryness that sits so well with the dry spice and quinine of the wine. But this is also another chocolate where the Lagavulin comes into its own again, perhaps with its savouriness picking up on the salt and its pungency standing up to the cocoa character of this darker chocolate.
Top match: Probably has to go to the Barolo Chinato, though Lagavulin is certainly worth a try
Unexpectedly crunchy: the “crispy caramel pieces” are reminiscent of Crunchie bars. The port doesn’t work at all, coming across as strangely astringent. Once again the Ben Rye’ is really only lessened in combination. The rum is rather tasty, its sugar heritage coming across alongside the caramel. The Barolo is pretty much always in command in the presence of chocolate, but I don’t think this is the best match. I’d hoped that the Lagavulin would shine here, but it was not really to be.
Top match: Flor de Cana rum
Overall I was surprised that the Ben Rye’ didn’t do better, but perhaps it has to be matched carefully. Not that Mrs H. cared—she liked the wine so much she’d happily drink that and forget about the chocolates, which coming from her is quite something. I’d still recommend this wine but perhaps drink it on its own.
The Barolo Chinato, on the other hand, showed itself to be a good chocolate all-rounder, though working best with quality dark stuff. Likewise I think that if you want something to sip with chocs that at least won’t clash then it seems a ruby port or a decent sweetish rum will always work.
The Lagavulin was a leftfield contender. I also had some filled chocs that actually contained the stuff, along with liquorice, and that worked fine—in fact just thinking about it you can imagine how liquorice’s warm yet strident force should lock horns fairly evenly with Islay malt’s briny, peaty, iodine presence. So perhaps it needs extreme flavours like that. Planning a quiet night, munching liquorice allsorts? Get the Lagavulin in.
Finally, while preparing this test I came across The Chocolate Shop, describing itself as “The Chocolate Lover’s Wine”. But rather than partnering with chocolate, it actually has the stuff blended in it, along with a quantity of sugar. It does pretty much what it says on the tin, an ordinary dry red wine with added strong cocoa-powder flavours on the nose and palate, along with an element of black cherry (though it says it just has “natural chocolate flavouring” and sugar added). It’s not actually that sweet—and yet somehow manages to be a bit sickly. Although it doesn’t make me gag, I wouldn’t want to drink very much of it. Perhaps I’m just not used to having cocoa in my wine. I don’t know what to do with the rest of the bottle, though my sister made a good suggestion: reduce it and make a sauce for venison. Perhaps with a touch of chilli…
* Note that the invention is also attributed to Giuseppe Cappelano.
** The caramel chocolate I had to go out and buy again, as the original bar I purchased disappeared into Mrs H. within 24 hours, before I had a chance to conduct my tasting…