ABCs of Pairing Wine and Chocolate

Matching up this odd couple doesn’t have to be challenging, and there are delicious rewards for getting it right

ABCs of Pairing Wine and Chocolate
You have several sweet options when pairing wine with chocolate, including fortified reds, bright whites and sparklers. (fcafotodigital/Getty Images)
Feb 9, 2021

From dark truffles to sweet candy bars to homemade brownies, chocolate is a decadent indulgence many can’t resist. But wine lovers might see chocolate as a challenge—a difficult pairing that makes their favorite beverage seem bitter. It’s true that chocolate coats the mouth, making it hard to taste anything but that rich and distinctive cocoa flavor. But there are delicious and exciting rewards for getting that match just right.

To help you do that, we’ve put together these pairing tips to guide you through any Valentine’s Day, Halloween or treat-yourself dessert. You’ll also find an overview of the best sweet wine categories for the job. We hope this will give you the cocoa confidence to order that last glass when you finally decide, yes, we should get dessert.

Tips for Pairing Wine and Chocolate

Get the sweetness in balance: When pairing wine and desserts, the general rule is that the wine should be sweeter than the food, to avoid making the wine seem bitter or sour. This holds true for wine and chocolate too. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, young, ripe, dry reds can sometimes pair well with high-cacao chocolates. Dark and bittersweet chocolates, which have just enough sugar to taste "neutral" rather than sweet, can even enhance those wines’ flavors of fruit, vanilla and chocolate.

Put some weight behind it: Luscious, mouthcoating chocolate can make wine pairings seem lighter and flabbier, so choose a fuller-bodied wine balanced by vibrant acidity. Fortified red wines—with their sugar, tannins and high alcohol levels—have the heft to hold up to chocolate’s richness.

Pair like with like: Both wine and chocolate can offer a complex array of flavors and aromas. Look for sweet wines with bold notes that are known to work with chocolate: toffee, coffee, walnut, almond, cherries, berries, fruit cake, spice and, of course, chocolate. When possible, try to match your wine to a chocolate’s specific character. For instance, a single-origin chocolate bar with bold fruit flavors or a tart or cake that incorporates fruit can be complemented by a wine with berry or stone fruit notes.

Make a counterpoint: In a great pairing, each element can fill in the "gaps" in the other to create a more well-rounded flavor profile. Fruit-forward wines can enhance a drier, earthier chocolate, for example, or a wine with pronounced citrus notes can create vibrant contrast with rich chocolate flavors.

Stay open to exploration: While rules can help steer you toward tasty pairings, don't be afraid to experiment and try unconventional matches. The chocolate world is not a monolith: It offers many styles with diverse flavors—today you can find everything from bars with cocoa nibs or bacon to chocolates filled with mushroom and desserts with savory and herbal ingredients—so a wine that ties in with a distinctive element might pleasantly surprise you as a pairing. As Wine Spectator features editor Owen Dugan says, even if it's not a perfect match, you're still drinking wine and eating chocolate.

6 Dessert Wines to Pair with Chocolate

At great personal sacrifice, Wine Spectator editors have over the years subjected themselves to hours of tasting wines with chocolate desserts, chocolate bars and other chocolate candies to determine which make the best matches. (Really, it's not always as much fun as it sounds!) While there are many great dessert-wine options from around the world, some categories are more reliable with a wide range of desserts. Here are their tried-and-true favorites.

Want to learn more about dessert wines? Check out our Sweet Wines 101!

Vin Santo

Category: Dried grapes

Made most typically from the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, Italy’s Vin Santo wines are made from grapes dried for three or four months on cane mats or drying racks, which concentrates the grapes’ sugars and gives them a distinctive character. The wines are then fermented and aged in small barrels, sometimes made of wood other than oak, such as chestnut.

The wines range in sweetness, from very dry to full dessert wines, but the best sweet versions are balanced by moderately high acidity. Along with nutty and oxidative notes, Vini Santo can display flavors like orange, brown sugar, honey and caramel. Not only do these flavors match deliciously with chocolate sweets, but they can be paired with an ingredient that’s often unfriendly to wine: coconut. A chocolate filled with rich coconut cream or a dessert that incorporates toasted coconut can contrast appealingly with Vin Santo’s citrus notes and bright acidity. Be careful with gooier chocolate desserts, however: A Vin Santo may not always have enough body to work.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for recently rated Vini Santo.

Brachetto d’Acqui

Category: Sparkling

This aromatic Italian red may not be well-known to Americans, but it’s worth your attention if you can find it. Made from the Brachetto grape in the Piedmont region, near the town of Acqui Terme, Brachetto d'Acqui is typically low in alcohol and often made in sweet and frizzante (lightly sparkling) or spumante styles. The wines tend to display notes of rose, ripe berries, candied red fruit, orange, herb, spice and chocolate. Sweeter versions shine with chocolate-covered strawberries or any chocolate desserts that emphasize fresh fruits and berries. Bittersweet chocolates can make Brachettos seem more opulent.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for Brachettos d’Acqui.

Banyuls

Category: Fortified

Made in southern France’s Roussillon region, Banyuls is a Grenache-based wine that may also include grapes such as Carignane and Mourvèdre. Like the Rhône Valley’s Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise wines, Banyuls is a vin doux naturel, meaning that it is fortified with a neutral grape spirit before fermentation is completed, retaining some of its natural sugar while boosting its alcohol level. Vintners may choose to age these wines with or without oxygen contact, resulting in a range of styles and significantly different colors.

The best expressions of Banyuls are elegant, bright and harmonious, with juicy red fruit, citrus, herb, licorice and chocolate notes that pair deliciously with chocolate’s fruit flavors. Chocolate desserts with a citrusy spin are a particularly tasty match.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for Banyuls wines.

Tawny Port

Category: Fortified

Produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley, Ports are traditionally made from a variety of native grapes, the most significant being Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa. (More than 80 different varieties are permitted for Port production.) Port is made in a range of styles, and within each category, there is even more variety from winery to winery as they use different grape blends and winemaking practices.

Among Port’s main classifications, tawny Ports are aged the longest in wood, which makes them lighter in color than ruby, Late-Bottled Vintage and Vintage Ports. They can mature in barrels for anywhere between 10 and 40 years (usually indicated on the wine’s label) and are exposed to oxygen during this process, which gives them nutty, slightly woody, dried-fruit character. Vintage tawny Port is known as colheita and must be made from grapes picked in a single year. (For more on Port, check out Dr. Vinny’s Port Primer).

As with other fortified wines, the best tawnies can balance their rich flavors with elegance and silky texture. They are ready to drink when bottled, and offer nut, coffee, orange and honey flavors that beg to be paired with similarly nutty chocolates or desserts, or those with citrus and spice flavors. But note that tawnies tend not to be as sweet as the richest categories of fortified wines, so it’s best to pair these Ports with moderately sweet desserts.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for recently rated tawny Ports.

Australian Stickies

Category: Fortified / Solera

Known colloquially as “stickies,” Liqueur Muscat and Liqueur Muscadelle (formerly known as Tokay) are two of Australia’s hallmark dessert wines, and they’ve been a treat Down Under since the 19th century. Respectively made from the grapes Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge and Muscadelle, they incorporate three key techniques for making dessert wine: they are made from partially dehydrated grapes, are fortified during fermentation and are matured in a solera system, with multiple vintages blended together to create the final wine.

While stickies can be luscious, the best versions aren’t too heavy or cloying. The younger vintages in the solera blend can give the wines freshness, which is balanced by oxidative notes from the oldest portions. The resulting stickies have toffee, dried fruit, jam, hazelnut and spice flavors that go especially well with a nutty chocolate like peanut butter cups or Italian gianduja, a spread made with hazelnuts. Stickies are also rich and sweet enough to pair with sugary chocolate desserts that might not work well with other fortified wines.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for recently rated Australian dessert wines.

Sweet Sherries

Category: Fortified / Solera

Made primarily from the Palomino grape, Sherry is a fortified wine produced around the Spanish city Jerez de la Frontera, and near the towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Sherries are also made using a solera system and are made in a range of styles based on how much oxygen they are exposed to while fermenting and aging. Manzanilla and Fino are light, dry versions that see the least oxygen, protected from it by a layer of yeast known as the flor. For amontillado Sherries, the flor dies off after five or six years or is killed through fortification, so the wine experiences some oxidation, adding nutty and dried citrus notes. (Check out our ABCs of Sherry for more details.)

For chocolate, we should focus on the richest Sherry types. Oloroso Sherries spend little or no time beneath a flor before they are fortified and aged oxidatively, resulting in richer, thicker and nuttier wines. Olorosos are technically dry, though may taste sweet due to their high glycerine content and dried citrus and spice flavors. They can be blended to make cream Sherries or other sweet Sherries, dark wines with raisin and toffee flavors imparted by the addition of Pedro Ximénez grapes. Pedro Ximénez, or “PX,” is the sweetest and richest Sherry style of the bunch. These syrupy dessert wines are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes, resulting in sumptuous notes like dried fruits, toffee, coffee and Christmas pudding.

With such rich flavors and textures, richer Sherries are primed for sipping with chocolate. Olorosos can be especially rewarding alongside dark and high-quality chocolates. Sherries can often show distinct mineral and saline flavors, especially if they are sourced from schist soils near the ocean, making them a fine match for salted and caramel-based chocolates.

Wine Spectator website members: Get scores and tasting notes for recently rated Sherries.

Chocolate Sweet Wines Fortified Wines Pairings Food

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