16th of September 2022
Chocolate Pairing - An Expert Guide
The beauty of pairing chocolate with wine, spirits, or cheese is that it expands the range of sensations you can experience. In the best of cases, dark chocolate pairings offer delightfully versatile new flavors and aroma sensations. But it depends on the pairing combination. The key is finding the right match, both in terms of flavor and mouthfeel. It also depends on how you do it.
Pairing Chocolate with Wine & Spirits: Contrary to popular belief, red wines like merlot and zinfandel generally do not pair well with dark chocolate, because the tannins clash. However, a fortified wine like Port, or a sweet dessert wine like Sauternes, can pair beautifully with dark chocolate. Whisky, cognac, certain kinds of rum, and añejo tequila can all be fantastic pairing partners with dark chocolate, depending on the bottle and the type of chocolate. See below for specifics.
Pairing Chocolate with Cheese: Extremely pungent cheeses (for example, a stinky Camembert or blue cheese) may overwhelm the chocolate. But creamy and nutty cheeses (think Gruyère, Gouda, Brie, and goat cheese) pair wonderfully with dark chocolate. In general, we’ve found that soft and semi-soft cheeses work better than hard cheeses, for textural reasons. We'll go into it in greater depth below.
The 3-Step Process: Over many years of personal and professional experimentation, we’ve developed a specific method for pairing chocolate. It helps draw out the flavor union in a way that can lead to surprising results for your taste buds.
Here’s What You’ll Find in this Chocolate Pairing Guide:
1. The 3-step process to chocolate pairings
2. Wine and chocolate pairings
3. Whisky and chocolate pairings
4. Pairing chocolate with other spirits (e.g. cognac, rum, tequila, etc.)
5. Cheese and chocolate pairings
Download the PDF: How to Pair Chocolate with Wine, Spirits, & Cheese (Free Guide)
The 3-step Process to Chocolate Pairings
There are many ways to pair a dark chocolate bar with wine, spirits, or cheese, and we invite you to experiment. However, there is a certain procedure that we’ve developed over many enjoyable hours of trial and error.
Feel free to acquaint yourself with our Guide to Chocolate Tasting before delving in.
The Courtship: Think of pairing as a courtship between two soon-to-be lovers, and you have been given the task of bringing them together. Start out by carefully tasting the dark chocolate on its own. Next, carefully taste the wine, spirit, or cheese on its own, exploring both aroma and flavor.
The Union: Once you have an idea of their individual personalities, it’s time to bring the two together in this 3-step process:
1. Place a piece of dark chocolate in your mouth and allow it to begin to melt. With To’ak chocolate, this usually takes about 10 seconds.
2. Take a small sip of the wine or spirit, bathing the chocolate in your mouth for a few seconds. In the case of cheese, take a bite of the cheese and slowly chew both chocolate and cheese together.
3. Swallow the wine or spirit but keep the chocolate in your mouth, allowing it to completely melt. Open yourself up to the unexpected evolution of flavor that occurs. In the case of cheese, there is no way to separate the two once they’ve been mixed inside your mouth, so simply enjoy this marriage to the fullest.
Serving Instructions: Spirits should be served neat or, in some cases, with a very small addition of water. Be forewarned that ice will mute the flavor of both the chocolate and the spirit and may compromise the experience. Cheese should be served at room temperature.
Wine and Chocolate Pairings
Think sweet and fortified.
Red wine: Contrary to popular belief, red wine is a tricky pairing partner with dark chocolate. The tannins in red wine tend to clash with the tannins in dark chocolate, although exceptions can be found. If you must pair dark chocolate with red wine, stay away from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and zinfandel, and opt instead for a less tannic grape, like pinot noir. Or use milk chocolate rather than dark chocolate … if you must.
White wine: White wine doesn’t work as well as sweet fortified wines or dessert wines (see below), but some combinations can work. Try Gewürztraminer, moscato, or a sweet riesling. Sometimes a very buttery chardonnay can work.
Fortified Dessert Wine: Your best bet is to use a fortified dessert wine like Port, Pedro Ximénez Sherry, or Malmsey Madeira. These all pair beautifully with dark chocolate. With To'ak chocolate, they tend to bring out dark fruit notes, like fig and stewed dates. When it comes to Port, both Ruby and Tawny can work very well. Be advised that dry sherries like Oloroso Sherry will not pair well. If you want to go the Sherry route, it must be Pedro Ximénez, whose sumptuous sweetness envelopes the chocolate.
Sweet Dessert Wine: The first time we paired To’ak chocolate with a glass of Sauterne, we were so smitten that we decided to import an ex-Sauternes barrel, in which some of our chocolate is currently aging. Hungary’s legendary sweet wine, Tokaji Aszú, also pairs beautifully. Be sure to choose a bottle of Tokaji Aszú with a sweetness classification of 5 or 6 Puttonyos. You can also go with the extremely sweet Tokaji Eszencia, which only has 2-4% alcohol. Several centuries ago, the French king Louis XV famously called Hungarian Tokaji wine “The king of wines, and the wine of kings.” I can only imagine what he would have said if he had the chance to pair it with To’ak chocolate.
Sparkling Wine: Italy's preeminent sweet sparkling wine, Moscato d'Asti, is a good bet. At just 5.5% ABV, this is also a nice low-alcohol option. Dry champagne does not pair particularly well with dark chocolate, but it can still be fun.
Wine Folly put together a list of 9 "Serious" Sweet Wines You Must Try. Generally speaking, every single wine on their list pairs well with To'ak chocolate.
Whisky and Chocolate Pairings
Whisky offers the widest variation in pairing options for dark chocolate in general, and for To’ak chocolate in particular. This is why To'ak began experimenting with aged chocolate using specialty casks, including ex-whisky barrels.
Note that it helps to add a few drops of water to your whisky before pairing, especially if it’s cask strength.
Speyside: Among single malts from Scotland, we especially like the rich, sweet, sherried whiskies of Speyside (eg. Aberlour, Macallan, Glenrothes).
Islay: Peaty Scotch whiskies from Islay (eg. Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore) lend an interesting savory note to the experience. We liked Laphroaig so much that we imported one of their barrels to age our 2015 harvest of chocolate. The resulting edition—our Islay Cask Aged 3 Years—became one of our most celebrated editions. Owen Dugan, food critic with Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, called it “dazzling.” As you can expect, that particular chocolate paired very well with a dram of Laphroaig.
Irish Whiskey: Ireland’s smooth triple-distilled Irish whiskeys (eg. Redbreast, Bushmills, Tullamore Dew) are often the most reliable, well-rounded, and economical pairing partners for dark chocolate. They never fail. Redbreast 12 Year is one of our favorites. But if you’re on a budget, Bushmills Original works just fine and costs less than $20 USD. We have yet to find any edition of To’ak chocolate that does not pair well with the Irish whiskey’s referenced above. That’s how reliable they are.
American Whiskey: Among American whiskeys, your best bet is pretty much any Bourbon from the Buffalo Trace distillery (eg. Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Pappy Van Winkle). They all tend to have this nice butterscotch note that plays especially well with To’ak chocolate. A few high-quality Rye whiskeys also work (eg. Russell’s Reserve 6 Year, Angel’s Envy Rum-Finished Rye).
Japanese Whisky: Japanese whisky isn’t a “can’t fail” pairing like Irish whisky. But when it works, it works. Hakushu 12 year is a good choice. For a more indulgent option, try Yamazaki 18 year.
Asia-Pacific: The uniquely-finished Solist bottlings from the Taiwanese distillery Kavalan are remarkably good with To’ak chocolate—in fact, one of the best we’ve tried. Australia’s award-winning single malt distillery, Sullivan’s Cove, also offers several wonderful pairing partners for dark chocolate. But it’s not easy to get your hands on one of their bottles.
A peaty dram of Laphroaig with To’ak chocolate? The smoke and salty sea notes of the whisky pair imbue the chocolate with a nice savory tone, bringing the vegetal notes of the chocolate into balance with the fruit and caramel.
Pairing Chocolate with Other Spirits
There are lots of good options to choose from when it comes to dark chocolate pairings with other spirits. The key is quality. When it comes to pairing with chocolate, the difference between blanco tequila and añejo tequila is huge. The same applies to VS Cognac vs VSOP or XO.
Rum: One of our all-time favorite pairings with To’ak chocolate is Ron Zacapa 23. It is the bottle that we obligate ourselves to always have on hand in the office, where we often do tastings and pairings with guests. However, spiced rums and white rums do not work very well. The Zacapa works because of the caramel and vanilla notes.
Tequila: We also love añejo Tequilas for the same reason—the rich caramel notes are a delightful match for dark chocolate. Our favorite añejo Tequilas are Don Julio and, interestingly, Casamigos. Be forewarned that blanco and reposado Tequila will not work as well.
Cognac: This is the pairing that effectively launched the world's first long-term Chocolate Aging program. The very first barrel we imported was an ex-Cognac cask, inspired by how our 2014 edition tasted when combined with Cognac. Our Cognac Cask Matured 4 Year chocolate is probably our all-time greatest edition. When pairing dark chocolate with Cognac, be sure to choose VSOP or XO Cognacs. Kelt and Frapin are two of our favorites.
Exotic Choices: A few years back we did some extensive chocolate experiments with our mixology friends at the Violet Hour, in Chicago. Green Chartreuse and Absinthe were the surprise winners.
Cheese and Chocolate Pairings
When pairing chocolate with cheese, the fat of the cheese tends to absorb and neutralize the bitterness of the dark chocolate and often brings out the latent nuttiness of both chocolate and cheese in an unusually beautiful way.
Texture: In general, we’ve found that soft and semi-soft cheeses work better than hard cheeses like parmesan, for textural reasons.
Type: Sheep cheese, goat cheese, and cow cheese can all work. One of these days we need to try it with llama milk cheese. Avoid especially pungent options like blue cheese.
Favorites: Some of our favorites include a wide range of Brie cheeses, alpine cheeses (e.g. Comté, Gruyère, and Beaufort), Pyrenees sheep milk cheese (e.g. P'tit Basque and Brebis), Gouda, and even Manchego. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and much more needs to be explored in this realm.
What Are Your Favorite Chocolate Pairings?
Because of dark chocolate's versatility, finding its best pairing partners is a lifelong venture. There are thousands upon thousands of options to experiment with, from common companions like sea salt, apricot, hazelnuts, and espresso to more exotic ingredients like herbs, spices, and tropical fruits. We invite you to shop To'ak's collection of chocolates and share with us your favorite chocolate pairings.