Chocolate marketers often spruik the joys of the red-wine-and-choc combo. But they're misguided. Try it if you don't believe me. Take a piece of your favourite chocolate and pour yourself a glass of your favourite red. Individually, each is lovely. But put them together and chances are they'll clash.
I'm not completely against drinking red wine with chocolate. A dark, bitter chocolate with 85 per cent cocoa solids carefully matched with the right full-bodied red - one with lots of sweet, rich fruit and ample but supple tannin - can be delicious. But the key words here are "carefully matched": I find most red wines simply too dry and tannic to work well. And I'm not the only one.
"I tell people all the time not to do red wine and chocolate," says Samantha Payne, sommelier at Nomad in Sydney. "The tannins in the wine and that mouthcoating texture and bitterness you get in good chocolate just fight with each other. It's the same reason I wouldn't recommend a high-acid wine with a dish that has lots of acidity: the two elements are too similar."
Instead, Payne looks for wines that complement and provide a foil for the taste and texture of the chocolate. "We're doing a take on a Turkish delight trifle," she says. "It's got chocolate ganache and choc biscuit pieces in it, and I'm matching it with Chalmers appassimento sagrantino. Yes, technically it's a red wine because it's made from red grapes, but those grapes are air-dried before fermentation, so the flavours are raisined, the tannins are softer and there's a lovely sweetness."
Another sommelier standby for chocolate is Banyuls, a sweet red fortified made from old grenache vines in the hills of Roussillon, in south-west France: again, the added fortifying alcohol and rich plummy sweetness from the ripe fruit bring extra dimension to the wine, helping it match the intensity of dark chocolate.
Winemaker Simon Killeen reaches for fortified wines when there's chocolate on the table. Killeen grew up in a wine family in Rutherglen surrounded by barrels of maturing muscat and tokay and port, so he's had plenty of time and experience refining his matches.
"I've got a massive sweet tooth," he says. "Really dark chocolate can go with a big dry red - especially if the chocolate has some sea salt involved - but the classic matches are rich, sweet muscat with milk chocolate, and vintage fortified (what we used to call vintage port) with dark chocolate."
The 2014 Vintage Fortified he makes under his Simão & Co label is a brilliant example of the style, full of the vibrant perfumed purple fruit of the six varieties in the blend, including tempranillo, touriga nacional and durif. Killeen likes to introduce a salty note by offering both dark chocolate and a hard cheese to guests. "The saltiness in the cheese helps to soften those tannins in the wine and prepare it for the chocolate," he says.
Spanish and Portuguese wine specialist Scott Wasley recommends the fortified wines of the Iberian Peninsula and Madeira with chocolate. But he doesn't go for the traditional choice of super-sweet and luscious wines such as Pedro Ximénez sherry. Instead he prefers medium-sweet fortifieds with intense flavour and the high-toned characters that come from spending many years maturing in barrel. "As long as the chocolate is nice and dark, not too sweet, these wines have the power to cut through and make a great match," he says. "Really intense and nutty amontillado can work well. Oloroso is very good. And an old medium-sweet Madeira made from the boal grape is fabulous."
If you like something stronger than sherry or Madeira, the world of spirits is your oyster. Winemaker and chocolatier Peter Wilson (of Kennedy & Wilson) introduced me to the joys of chocolate with whisky, demonstrating how the lighter body and heather perfume of a Speyside single malt is a great partner for milk chocolate, while the gutsy peaty tang of an Islay whisky can be wonderful with savoury, dark chocolate.
And then, of course, consider the regional match. Chocolate originated in South America, so it's no surprise to discover that rum can be a great coupling.
"When we do tastings of the Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva Venezuelan rum we give dark chocolate," says spirits importer Ben Baranow. "It's a match made in heaven - and the darker the chocolate the better, so the sweetness in the rum gets a chance to shine."
Try one of these matches and you'll never go back to drinking red wine with chocolate again. Unless you really want to.