In "Mad Flavor," I describe exceptional culinary experiences from small artisan producers.
Showing my usual absolute devotion to the interests of Grist readers and disdain for my own, I attended a tasting last night of wine and chocolate pairings.
I made this sacrifice to give you, dear readers, more ideas for a festive Valentine’s Day.
The tasting took place at 3 Cups in Chapel Hill, a cafe fanatical about sourcing and serving excellent coffee, wine, chocolate, and tea. 3 Cups chocolate buyer Jonathan Wallace and wine guy Matt Souza paired four small-batch chocolates with Italian wines from small farms.
Wallace and Souza emphasized a point dear to my heart: wine and chocolate are both "fermented agricultural products." Whether their feedstocks — cocoa beans and grapes — emerge from vast, pesticide-laced plantations or small integrated farms, they come from somewhere; and human beings, no matter how much or little technology is involved, have a hand in harvesting and processing them.
And whereas industrially produced wine and chocolates deliver generic flavors — reflecting a zeal for cheapness and standardization — artisanally grown and processed goods taste of where they come from. And that makes pairing them tricky — and rewarding.
The results of the 3 Cups pairing, below the fold, were dramatic.
First, a word about the chocolates. All four come from European makers (two from the great French maker Valrhona, one each from Italy’s Domori and France’s Michel Cluizel). None of them carry certifications such as organic or Fair Trade; yet all represent cocoa beans directly sourced from small farms.
I asked Jonathan about these companies’ trade practices. He replied that at the quality level represented by these chocolates, the makers are paying cocoa prices far above the (pathetically low) commodity price, and probably more than the Fair Trade price. Moreover, the farms are using careful, not-so chemical-dependent growing practices.
I have to add that all four seem superior in delicacy and complexity to all the chocolates sampled at our recent tasting. They can be found in carefully stocked fancy-food stores. As for the wines, finding them may be tricky, because they’re all pretty small-production. (In the Triangle Area of North Carolina, they’re distributed by Haw River Wine Man.) If you carry a print-out of this post into a good wine shop, you can probably be directed to similar wines, if not these specific ones.
So here’s what we had.
(1) Chocolate: Valrhona Araguani, 72 percent cocoa content, $5.50/2.6 oz
Wine: Le Calle Campo Beo, Sangiovese, $12.99
We tried the chocolates first, and then sipped wine. This Valrhona, sourced from Venezuelan beans, delivered a classic dried fruit/nutty profile. Jonathan noted that Valrhona used unprocessed sugarcane juice to sweeten it; I caught faint caramel notes.
The Campo Beo wine comes from a small, integrated organic farm in Tuscany (the farm also produces olive oil, grain for pasta, and sheep). I’ve been enjoying this delicious, high-value dry wine for months now; the chocolate seemed to pull out raisiny flavors from it. The ideal here would be to serve the wine with a simple Valentine’s Day dinner and produce the chocolate bar afterwards, which would transform the the last sips of wine into something different.
(2) Chocolate: Domori, Ecuador, 70 percent cocoa, $7.00/3 oz
Wine: Corte Majoli Ripasso Valpolicella, $13.99
The Domori chocolate had a woodsy, deep, mushroomy flavor that was unique and delicious.
The wine, another dry red, is equally unusual. Hailing from the area around Venice, it’s made from grapes little-known in these parts: Corvina, Rondinella, and Croatina. The wine-making is unique to the area: grapes dry for six months — concentrating the juices — and are then blended with fresh-pressed grapes and fermented. The result is a deep-flavored, complex wine.
Paradoxically, the two products, both rich on their own, combine in a light, pleasing way. Jonathan aptly described the pairing as "refreshing." This combo can stand on its own — maybe even as a pre-dinner snack.
(3) Chocolate: Valrhona Chuao 2002, 65 percent cocoa, $6.00/2.6 oz
Wine: Sant’ Evasio Brachetto DAqui, $15.00
The chocolate, which Valrhona has been storing since 2002 and recently released, is delicious: deep, pure flavors, with hazelnut and light lemony notes.
The wine, light-red and frizzante (fizzy), seems made for Valentine’s Day. Made in Italy’s celebrated Piedmont region from Brachetto grapes, it’s sweet, flowery, and ephemeral. It dances on the tongue for a second or two, and then disappears. The combo would make a perfect and complete dessert.
(4) Chocolate: Michel Cluizel Maraluni, 64 percent cocoa, $6.25/3.5 oz.
Wine, Brolo delle Giare Recioto della Valpolicella, $29.99/half bottle.
Another fantastic chocolate, this one comes from cocoa beans from Papua New Guinea. There’s a lot going on: currants, grapes, roasted nuts, all wrapped into a mellow, long flavor. This may have my favorite chocolate of the bunch.
I loved the wine, too. It hails like wine number two, from the Veneto, and is also made mostly from Corvina grapes. Again, the grapes are dried to concentrate the juices; in this case, the wine undergoes a quick fermentation, leaving behind plenty of residual sugars. But it’s not simply a sweet wine. It carries a nice acidity to balance the sweetness, and I caught black-olive notes. Like number three, the combo makes a great simple dessert.