A few weeks ago, my good friend Wendy hosted a wine and chocolate tasting for a select few of the ladies of the Alpha Phi Omega brotherhood. The seven of us—Wendy, Andie, Carolyn, Anita, Lupe and Alison—had all pledged within a few years of each other during our time at the University of Maryland. Like most people, our careers and families make these gatherings rare, and even more special. Our only admittance to the evening’s event was a bottle of wine to be paired with the chocolate that Wendy had procured.
I don’t go gaga over chocolate the way some others do. My daughter and ex are notorious chocolate lovers. The joke in the family is that Ilsa bleeds chocolate. At times it seems that there’s always a chocolate course at each of Ilsa’s meals, and then some.
Me? I like chocolate in little bits. A kiss or two there. A snack size Twix or Kit Kat—chocolate-covered cookies are a fav of mine. And I do have a weakness for the molten lava cakes and the variation that pastry chef Jacques Torres does, the molten lava chocolate cookies. Must be the warm chocolate center. I do love a good hot chocolate sauce.
My tempered appreciation of chocolate is surprising considering that my mother’s country, Ecuador, is recognized as the leading exporters of the world’s finest cocoa beans, which are harvested from the cacao tree. It is the tree’s cocoa beans—which to me resembles tightly packed cotton balls—that are harvested, ferment and roasted eventually becoming processed cocoa powder, chocolate liquor, chocolate mass and chocolate bars. If you want a step-by-step process of how cocoa beans become chocolate check out Equal Exchange’s explanation of the process.
I’ve given the chocolate making process so little thought that it came as a total surprise to me that there would be multiple varietals of the cacao tree and hence the cocoa beans, which makes sense when I think of the varietals of apples harvested and grapes used in wine making (of which there are up to 10,000 types of the common grape vine). To be specific, there are three types of beans:
- Forastero of which 85 percent of the world’s chocolate is made of (think Hershey and Mars). It is noted by its strong, earthy flavor.
- Trinitario, a hybrid of the Forastero and Criollo beans, the Trinitario came to be in the mid-1700s when a devastating storm nearly wiped Trinidad of its Criollo cacao trees and savvy plantation owners imported the Forastero beans to cross pollinate with the Criollo beans to produce a bean used in 12 percent of the world’s chocolate.
- Criollo is the world’s finest and rarest chocolate, used in three percent of all chocolate produced. Because of its lack of bitterness, it is reserved for luxury chocolates, however it is often blended with one of the other two varieties since the Criollo is expensive and becoming scarcer.
For the wine and chocolate tasting, each one of us were asked to bring a bottle of wine to go with a chocolate of Wendy’s choosing for a total of seven bottles. While Wendy had set up a few spittoons for us to empty our glasses into once we were done with the tasting, I don’t think any of us did.
The first pairing we sampled was of the 2016 Bartenura Moscato with GREEN & BLACKS’s Organic White Chocolate, 30% Cacao, made of cocoa butter from Trinitario cocoa beans. It was one of my favorite pairings of the evening. Though a sweet wine in its own right, the Bartenura Moscato softened the sweetness of the white chocolate bar. Carolyn also liked the “the blue juice with the white chocolate,” though she noted at nights’ end “who knew you could ever feel like you had too much chocolate…or wine.”
The next tasting paired GREEN & BLACKS’s Organic Milk Chocolate, 34% Cacao from the Trinitario beans with the Sweet Bitch Moscato Spumante Rosé, an Italian sparkling wine. Served at room temperature, as a sparkling wine, it should have been served chilled. While the pairing was not unpleasant, it was unremarkable. Having the wine chilled may have enhanced the combination of the milk chocolate with the sparkling rosé.
Our third Moscato for the evening was the 2016 Red Electra California Moscato. Wendy paired it with World Market’s ® Sea Salt Chocolate Bar, 64% Cacao. This Moscato also needed to be chilled as it was little on the effervescent side. Sadly, the salt in the darker chocolate did not work well with the Red Electra.
The ReLusso Sweet Rosse Frizzante was another wine that was best served chilled. Its partner, Valrhona Noir Manjari, 64% Cacao, is made from beans single-sourced in Madagascar and had a fruity note to it, pairing rather well with the Rosse Frizzante.
For my contribution, Wendy asked me to bring a zinfandel. I went with a favorite of mine, 2014 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel which was married to the Hexx, Dark Chocolate, 70% Cacao single-sourced from a farm,Kokoa Kamili, in Tanzania. This pairing was my other favorite of the evening, perhaps because the pairing of a rich red wine with a dark chocolate has long been a favorite of mine.
The Taylor Fladgate 10-Year-Old Tawny Porto, a rich port, accompanied a dark chocolate, Chocolat Bonnat 75% Cacao made of the Criollo bean. Though the chocolate had a high ratio of pure cacao in its make-up, the taste was surprisingly smooth, which I can only attribute to the caliber of the bean. I do love a rich port though, which I would be happy to enjoy on its own.
There were three key observations I made regarding this experience:
- Not all chocolate manufacturers share the origin or type of bean used to produce their bars. This makes me wonder about the quality of beans being used in blending their bars.
- While completely drinkable at room temperature (at least in my crowd) a sparkling wine, be it dry or sweet, red or white, is best served chilled.
- The more the tasting went on, the less notes we took.
While it was fun to indulge in chocolate and wine, the best part of the evening was enjoying each other’s company. Our fraternity at the time accepted every person who rushed as a pledge. The brotherhood was not looking for a specific personality type, but rather for someone who was service oriented. Our brotherhood is comprised of a diverse group of people with varying personalities and interests. Our years together have made us value the individuals we’ve grown into and each other. The opportunity to reminisce, spill secrets and create new memories over chocolate and wine was the evening’s true delight.