Wine and chocolate is a mysterious pairing that seems to have starkly different results for different palates. Which, of course, is fine since the only match that is good is the one that works for you. But it does make offering pairing recommendations a bit more difficult than it ought to be!
There is one standby that works wonders with most chocolate: the sweet red wine Banyuls from Southern France. Based on the Grenache grape, Banyuls seems to have the elusive balance of fruit, sugar, acidity and tannin that makes it chocolate’s perfect partner. Similar to Banyuls is Port -- in particular, the fruity style of port referred to as Ruby Port, which accounts for most of the branded port wines that the Port houses offer at very agreeable pricing.
So, what is it about chocolate that makes it so hard to pair?
Another problem that we encounter with pairing wine and chocolate is that the texture of the chocolate can have a profound effect on how the wine works with each style. In most people’s minds there is some sort of continuum that stretches from white chocolate (not chocolate), to milk chocolate, medium bittersweet, and right through the almost bitter high cocoa examples.
The truth is when you break down the chocolate taste profile you end up with something that looks more like a bowtie than a straight line. On one end are the super-rich, creamy and sweet examples, such as your typical milk chocolate. On the other end are the bittersweet chocolates with high cocoa content. Both of these extremes represent the most intense versions of chocolate. On one end for its richness and sweetness, and on the other end for its intensity and bitterness.
In between, one finds chocolates that tend to be less rich and less sweet. One of the keys to pairing food and wines is trying to align the intensities of both. In this case we have both texture and the balance of sweet and bitter to deal with, so you can see how this might end up being a difficult pairing to work with. That’s why going with Banyuls or a similar wine is such an easy fall back.
Banyuls is well suited to chocolate because of its fruity character, obvious but balanced sweetness, slight tannic edge and overall rich mouthfeel -- four elements that have to be taken into account to make the match work. If you’re not into Banyuls, other wines can work with chocolates, but each type of chocolate might require a more specific recommendation.