One of my friend’s favorite holiday traditions is to sit next to the fireplace with a bottle of vintage Graham’s at her side. She sips the wine slowly while nibbling on dark chocolate truffles or chocolate-covered almonds. For her, port and chocolate go hand-in-hand. Even though she’s served port with other desserts before, she always goes back to that same classic port and chocolate pairing.
The pairing of port and chocolate is popular for a reason: it’s a winning combination that’s very easy to get right. However, if you’re serious about bringing out all of the complex flavors in both the wine and the chocolate, finding the perfect pairing is a bit more of a challenge. A wine that’s too acidic will clash with a chocolate dessert, while a wine that’s too sweet will overwhelm your palate with sugar; both situations will make it hard to taste any of the nuances in either the wine or the chocolate. The best port and chocolate pairing brings out the best in the dessert and the wine. The following reliable pairing options will have you reaching for this perfect holiday wine at every opportunity.
The Best Port and Milk Chocolate Pairing
I once went to a Christmas party where the host brought out a wonderful bottle of dry white port from the Douro to cap off the evening. He decided to serve it alongside some homemade milk chocolate fudge. Both the fudge and the wine were delicious, but the two did not complement each other; the wine was far too tart for the ultra-sweet dessert. Just as in a Château d’Yquem food pairing, when pairing port and chocolate, you should always choose a wine that’s sweeter than the dessert. If the port is too dry, it will taste acidic and bitter in comparison with the chocolate. This is especially true if you’re planning on serving milk chocolate for dessert, which doesn’t have the bitterness of dark chocolate.
Port develops a mature rancio flavor as it ages (the wine begins to taste like bitter almond), and this doesn’t always complement sweeter chocolates.
The challenge of identifying the perfect pairing for milk chocolate is that it’s difficult to find a wine that exceeds the chocolate’s sweetness. Even sweeter wines, like late-bottled vintage (LBV) ports, can come across as too acidic when paired with milk chocolate. With this in mind, here’s how to pair port and milk chocolate:
- Try tawny or ruby port: These types of port are versatile, fairly straightforward in flavor, and often quite sweet. Ruby port has a simple, fruit-forward profile while tawny is nuttier, but both pair well with milk chocolate.
- Opt for younger vintages: Young tawny and ruby port–no more than ten years old–pair well with milk chocolate because they are fruit-forward and lively. Port develops a mature rancio flavor as it ages (the wine begins to taste like bitter almond), and this doesn’t always complement sweeter chocolates. Younger wines haven’t yet developed this mature flavor, so they’re a safer choice for your next port and milk chocolate pairing.
Another important tip for dessert wine pairings is to choose a wine that’s sweet, but not overly saccharine or simple. You don’t want to overwhelm your palate with too much sugar. Dow’s and Taylor’s make excellent young tawny and ruby ports that will pair well with everything from fudge to chocolate chip cookies. These wines are complex enough to make the tasting experience interesting, but won’t clash with or overpower milk chocolate.
The Best Port and Dark Chocolate Pairing
Whenever I’m looking for a perfect port and chocolate pairing for a holiday party or another special event, I always start with dark chocolate. A few years ago, I served a bottle of 1997 Fonseca Vintage port with a few extra dark chocolate truffles. On their own, the truffles were on the bitter side, so the supremely sweet wine was a perfect foil. What made the Fonseca such an ideal choice, however, was its unexpectedly dry, tannic finish. Although the wine was still much sweeter than the chocolate, those rasping tannins prevented it from tasting too sugary or rich. This added complexity and depth to the tasting experience.
Unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate pairs well with nutty, mature port flavors.
Almost all port pairs well with dark chocolate because it’s easy to find wines that are sweeter than bittersweet chocolate. Even chocolate that has only 40 percent cocoa (on the low end for dark chocolate) will taste much more intense and more bitter than a normal bar of milk or white chocolate. Not only does choosing dark chocolate give you more pairing options, but it also ensures that your port and chocolate pairing isn’t too sweet. The bitterness in the chocolate offsets the sweetness of the port and can even complement the rancio flavor in older port vintages. Here’s how to choose port to pair with dark chocolate:
- Try LBV or vintage port: Both of these styles are full-bodied, but vintage port is heavier than LBV. Pair vintage port with dense, rich dark chocolate dishes like flourless chocolate cake or chocolate pots de crème; pair LBV with plain dark chocolate bars or delicate truffles.
- Opt for older vintages: Unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate pairs well with nutty, mature port flavors. Look for wines that are at least ten years old, but preferably more than 20 years old.
Because you have more varieties of port to choose from when you pair it with dark chocolate, narrow your search down to only the finest producers and top-quality vintages. The 2000 vintage was especially ripe and rich, making it a great pairing for bittersweet chocolate. A bottle of 2000 Fonseca is an excellent choice from this highly-rated vintage. Or, you can choose port from the following year, like 2001 Noval Nacional, which also received high scores from critics.
Complex Port and Chocolate Pairings
Port and chocolate pairings become more complicated when you add more flavors to the dessert. For example, if you’re serving chocolate-covered raisins, the fruit might compete in flavor with the wine. However, you can make these additional flavors part of the tasting experience and even use them to enhance the flavors of the wine.
Port becomes nuttier with age, and you can bring these mature flavors to the fore with desserts like walnut-studded brownies, panforte, and hazelnut truffles.
To do this, make a list of the fruits, nuts, or spices that are most prominent in the dessert. Then, seek out port that matches those flavors. Here are a few examples:
- Chocolate-covered raisins: 2016 Fonseca, which has ripe, raisin-like fruit flavors.
- Chocolate and blueberry muffins: 2016 Noval, which has notes of blue fruit.
- Chili-infused chocolate bars: 1970 Fonseca, which has notes of spice.
- Chocolate orange tart: 2009 Taylor’s Quinta De Vargellas Vinha Velha, which has hints of orange flavor.
Likewise, if your chocolate dessert has nuts or nut extracts in it, you can choose an older port vintage to highlight these flavors. Port becomes nuttier with age, and you can bring these mature flavors to the fore with desserts like walnut-studded brownies, panforte, and hazelnut truffles. Aged port also pairs well with chocolate-covered caramels, however, keep in mind that caramel will make the dessert taste sweeter–you’ll need to ensure your older port is sweet enough to stand up to the caramel.
How to Serve Port and Chocolate
Pay attention to the amount of cocoa present in the chocolate to determine what order to serve your port and chocolate pairings in. Chocolate with the least amount of cocoa in it should be served first, alongside its corresponding port pairing, while darker chocolate should be served at the very end of the tasting. That’s because dark chocolate coats the palate and makes it difficult to taste more subtle flavors. Once you’ve put your chocolate in order, your port selections should follow a natural progression from light-bodied to full-bodied, too.
A fine port can elevate even the simplest chocolate dessert.
Another way to make your port and chocolate pairing party more professional and memorable is to choose wines that are rare or unusual. A fine port can elevate even the simplest chocolate dessert; almost everyone has had chocolate cake before, but they might not have had it with a glass of 1967 Noval Nacional. Shopping for the finest, rarest bottles of port online allows you to compare tasting notes and vintage scores with ease, ensuring that only the best bottles of port make it onto your dessert table this holiday season.
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Image attribution: Fast Forward Event Productions [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons