Photo by thepinkpeppercorn

The classic pairings: PB & J. Peas & carrots. Pizza & beer. Red wine & chocolate.

Red wine and chocolate. Search your local winery and wine bar listings, and you’ll surely stumble across more than a few such pairing events during the Valentine’s Day season. It’s hard to argue. Red wine is freakin’ awesome. Chocolate is freakin’ awesome. The two together must be doubly awesome, especially when smart wine people tell you so.

Thing is, it isn’t. When I first started drinking wine regularly, I too was swayed by the dream. I often found myself saving a glass of wine until dessert, which in my house almost always includes chocolate. Dessert, however, inevitably seemed to make the wine fall flat. As a wine n00b, I brushed this off. Chocolate and red wine is a classic pairing, I thought, so I must be tasting it wrong. Or something along those lines. As my wine education continued, however, I started to realize something. Chocolate and red wine – at least in most cases – is a terrible pairing.

Ever notice that when you eat good chocolate (especially dark chocolate, of which I am most fond), your mouth dries out similar to when you drink a big red wine? To put this very simply*, chocolate and red wine both contain high amounts of tannin. This makes them bitter. And sour. And astringent. These sensations – which are perhaps acquired tastes – are a big part of why we love chocolate and red wine, individually. When paired, the effect is intensified. When pairing red wine with steak, the fat from the beef cuts through the tannin. With chocolate, the tannin in the chocolate emphasizes the tannin in the wine.

There are, of course, some exceptions that may pair very well with chocolate. In order to understand what could make this work, we must first look to the beverage that is and shall always be the greatest pairing for chocolate on the planet: Milk. That’s right. (I’m a skim man myself, when drinking it.) Playing off the tannins, milk’s sweet, creamy, cool flavor & texture attacks the bitterness head on, refreshing and readying the mouth for another bite. It couldn’t be more perfect.

That said, when thinking of wines to pair with chocolate, we need a similar idea. Port is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s sweeter than the chocolate (or you’re eating the wrong chocolate), has a thick mouthfeel, and doesn’t bring much tannin. It often has notes of caramel, which obviously goes rather well with chocolate. If you must find a dry wine, something fruit-forward, with ample sweetness and minimal tannins is the best bet. I’m thinking a big Cali Zin or Aussie Shiraz could do the trick, though the alcoholic heat could present problems of its own.

As for me, I’ll stick with milk.

* For a more detailed scientific explanation of this phenomenon, check out Palate Press’ excellent article on the subject.