Who wins the honors for the best cacao variety in the world? It comes down to two finalists: Nacional and Criollo.
Almost all commercially-sold wine is produced from the same species of grape—Vitis vinifera. But within this single species, there are numerous varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. As nearly any wine enthusiastic can attest, the typical flavor profile of wine produced from Pinot Noir grapes is measurably different from wine produced from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Variety plays a strong role in determining flavor and aroma.
This same principle applies to dark chocolate. All chocolate is produced from the seeds (i.e., “beans”) of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). But within this single species, there are eleven clearly-defined “genetic clusters,” which are considered the primary cacao varieties. In addition to these eleven primary varieties of cacao, there is a wide range of cultivars and hybrids, such as the much-maligned CCN-51.
The two most coveted cacao varieties in the world are Nacional and Criollo. Nacional hails from Ecuador, and Criollo comes from Venezuela. Nacional and Criollo are prized among chocolate makers throughout the world for two important reasons: they are extremely rare and their flavor profiles are considered the most desirable. However, Nacional and Criollo are just as different from each other as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, in terms of their history, growing conditions, and especially their flavor profiles.
"Porcelana" Criollo from Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Cocina y Vino.
Criollo is believed to be 1,500 years old, dating back to Mayan civilization. Criollo cocoa beans tend to be low in tannins, relatively low in polyphenols, have less theobromine, and generally less bitterness. This equates to an exceptionally smooth and approachable chocolate, usually with a rich, nutty base and a predominance of classic “chocolatey” notes. Criollo dark chocolate is not known for its complexity, but it is undeniably pleasant and likeable—like a soft massage of the palate.
A 100% pure Nacional cacao tree in Piedra de Plata, verified by genetic analysis in 2015. Estimated to be over 100 years old.
Nacional cacao is the oldest variety of cacao in the world, dating back 5,300 years in the land that is now called Ecuador. Nacional cocoa beans have a generally higher polyphenolic content than Criollo cacao, more tannins, and moderate acidity. This chemical composition accounts for its famously fragrant aroma and remarkable degree of complexity. Floral, fruity, nutty, and vegetal/earthy notes can all be found in dark chocolate produced from Nacional cacao, and in some cases each of these characteristics can all be perceived in the same bar of dark chocolate. However, the relative levels of each flavor characteristic highly depend on terroir and production methods.
In our experience producing chocolate with Nacional cacao, we’ve found that shorter fermentation times and shorter conch times both serve to highlight its floral components, with orange blossoms and jasmine the most frequently cited. As both fermentation times and conch times grow longer, the flavor profile starts to veer toward the fruity side of the spectrum, although this only holds true up to a certain point. Notes of red fruits (cherry, raspberry, cranberry), dark fruits (plum, raisins, black mission fig), citrus (grapefruit, orange peel), and even tropical fruits (banana, occasionally mango) are all capable of presenting themselves. Earthy and grassy notes are another feature found particularly in Nacional cacao from Piedra de Plata, which sometimes moves into the woody realm of oak, pine, even eucalyptus.
If tasting Criollo dark chocolate is akin to a soft massage of the palate, tasting Nacional dark chocolate is like a walk through the tropical forest—all the colors of the land are contained within a single bite.
Consider also the positive effects of consuming dark chocolate like its performance-enhancing properties. Read More
Of course, terroir and production methods also play a strong role in the flavor profile of any dark chocolate. The most prestigious cacao varieties, such as Criollo and Nacional, are never grown in a vacuum; the soil and climate characteristics in which the trees are cultivated significantly influence the chemical composition of the beans. Likewise, the best cacao beans in the world will still yield a poor bar of dark chocolate if the beans were poorly fermented or over-roasted or adversely effected by any number of other production variables. To express this principle in mathematical terms, please refer to the formula below:
Flavor & Aroma Characteristics = Genetics + Terroir + Production Methods
Choosing the best cocoa variety in the world is like choosing the best wine. Ultimately, it’s a subjective decision.
Below is a complete list of all eleven genetic clusters of cacao, according to the USDA-ARS and Motamayor classification system.
• Contamana aka Ucayali/Scavina
• Iquitos aka Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo (IMC)
• Marañon aka Parinari
Note: The genetic composition of CCN-51 cacao is IMC (45.4%), Criollo (22.2%), Amelonado (21.5%), Contamana (3.9%), Purús (2.5%), Marañon (2.1%), and Nacional (1.1%).
 Motamayor J.C., Lachenaud P., Da Silva e Mota J.W., Loor Solórzano R.G, Kuhn D.N., et al. (2008) Geographic and genetic population differentiation of the Amazonian chocolate tree (Theobroma cacao L.) PLoS One, 3 (10): e3311 (8p.).
 Boza E., Motomayor J.C., Amores F., Cedeño-Amador, Tondo C., et al. (2014) Genetic Characterization of the Cacao Cultivar CCN 51: Its Impact and Significance on Global Cacao Improvement and Production, JASHS 139: 2219-229.