In South African Wine
on 20 Dec 2013

I used to teach wine and chocolate pairing classes back in Buffalo at the wine store where I worked; nearly every time I did, I got some snide comment on twitter about how there will never be a good wine and chocolate pairing. Yet my attendees were happy, everyone said they’d tried something new in the class and discovered a pairing they liked, and the class, which repeated, inevitably filled up far in advance.

Pepper pot and truffle

The proprietor of Square, a great little wine shop on the Madison square that I visited for the first time, expressed the same skepticism, though in a funnier way: “You’re from New York so you must be a Seinfeld fan,” she said. “You know when George wants to have sex while eating a pastrami sandwich? I feel like wine and chocolate pairing is like that. Both good, on their own, but together? Ehhhh.”

Here’s the thing. When I talk about wine and chocolate pairing, I’m talking about really good chocolate and really unusual wine. I am not talking about a Hershey bar and a cabernet (though I used to serve that option in my classes, to show people why it doesn’t work well). This holiday season, while the vineyard’s asleep, I’ve been working part-time at Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, one of the highest-rated chocolate makers in the country, and really enjoying getting to know single-origin handcrafted dark chocolate. Every week we experiment with a pairing. This being Wisconsin, it’s usually beer, but last week it was my turn and, naturally, I had a few wine ideas.

When I first started working at the chocolate shop I was given a “homework box” of chocolate to take home and study. I’m not kidding. On the way home, I stopped at Jenifer Street Market and picked up The Pepper Pot 2012, a juicy, spicy, purple-y Rhone blend made by Edgebaston.

Gail, who is one of my heroes in Madison, makes fascinating truffles with chocolate from sources including Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador and flavors like shiitake, hickory, and cinnamon/cayenne; her chocolates are thus much more suited to wine pairing than mainstream chocolate because its sugar content is much, much lower. (The rule of thumb is that the food should not be sweeter than the beverage.) I found our pumpkin truffle, which is a fall seasonal that is coated in pecan and made with crushed almonds, to be a perfect pairing for the Pepper Pot’s spices and chewy tannins, and the sweet curry truffle was a close second.

When I volunteered to bring in wine for our chocolate pairing exercises last week, I was excited to have acquired a Southern Right 2011 pinotage while back in Buffalo. My coworkers raved about it. Spicy, meaty, and clean, with black cherry notes and supple tannins, the wine was lovely with both our sweet curry and shiitake truffles (our shiitake shares pinotage’s umami, savory flavor; it’s one of our most interesting truffles).

I was thrilled to see my coworkers going nuts over South African wine (as a control and out of curiosity I brought a California collaboration pinot noir, The Pinot Project, which was perhaps a bit unfair as it was delicate, unfriendly to chocolate, and thus promptly ignored. I should probably try that wine again another time as it’s an interesting concept… but enough about how pinotage beat a Californian pinot noir in a popularity contest). Southern Right pinotage would be a great pairing for a lot of meals, especially on the braai/grill, but if you have access to high-end chocolate and you have the interest, give this duo a shot, and try to leave your doubts behind.

Julia Burke is a wine educator and writer.