Friday, 30 March 2012

Easter, chocolate and wine

Easter comes round again and with it the foremost question exercising the minds of epicureans everywhere: is there a wine that goes with an Easter egg?
Some bright sparks have taken the idea of wine and chocolate matching what you might consider a step too far: instead of packaging together a bottle of wine and some chocolates, they've cut out the middle man and just gone and put the chocolate flavouring directly into the wine.

The “wines” in question are designed to accompany chocolate-based desserts, apparently. Now I enjoy Boeuf Bourgignon – but, ye gads, I don't want the flavour of the meaty stew actually in the glass of wine I'm having with it. Call me old fashioned, but I'd rather my wine tasted of wine and my meat of meat. Whatever next? Festive wine with a hint of roast turkey, complete with sage and onion stuffing?

If I want to find a wine to sip while I guzzle my Easter egg, I'll choose one that naturally complements the flavours of what I'm eating. And what would that be?

After some exhaustive tasting, I have gleaned the following:

Really sweet milk chocolate – it's very hard to find any wine sweet enough to combat the sheer amount of sugar and mouth coating fat in traditional “English” milk chocolate. The closest I found to a match was a rich old Oloroso sherry, which has enough weight and density to stand up to it – just. Your best bet though is a good cup of tea with your Cadbury's egg.

Good quality dark chocolate – this is a much more forgiving beast for wines. Again the Oloroso would be a good choice, though I really enjoyed a 10-year old Tawny Port with a dark chocolate infused with orange oil and spice. Lovers of Green & Black's Easter eggs take note.

Chocolate cake – so much depends on what you put on the cake, as well as in it. If you have slathered the cake in a mountain of chocolate butter cream, cupcake style, then a cup of tea is probably the safest choice. If your cake is altogether less sweet, with more bitter dark chocolate flavour, then the fortified wines again come into play. I found the Oloroso just a bit better balanced than the Tawny Port with the substance of the cake.

The wines that I was tasting were:

Quinta do Infantado 10 year old Tawny Port - £12.99 for a half bottle (case price) from The Wine Reserve in Cobham
Tawny ports are, you guessed it, tawny coloured, due to long ageing in barrel. As well as changing colour, this style of port also takes on lovely caramel and nutty flavours as it ages, making it a great match for chocolatey things.

The Wine Society's Exhibition Viejo Oloroso Dulce Sherry - £10.75 for a full size bottle from The Wine Society
Dry sherries are starting to gain something of a following, thanks in part to the hip tapas and sherry bars that are starting to pop up, at least in London. Sweet ones, though, are still very much looked down upon, hence this bargain price for what it a very classy drink. To be classed as Old (Viejo), the sherry must have aged for 20 years. In that time it has gained additional weight and flavours: nuts, figs, raisins, coffee – this is one of those wines that evolve in the glass and you find something different every time you sip it. Sugar levels are not for the calorie-conscious, but a little goes a long way.

Other than a choc fest, Easter is also associated with a sit down family feast. The meat of choice at this time of year seems to be lamb which, I am pleased to report, is a most wine-friendly animal.

If you have forked out for some of the first Spring lamb, you don't want to overwhelm its delicacy with a wine that is too assertive. Good options here would be either Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais, which both have plenty of juicy red fruit and little in the way of tannin. Or even a dry rosé would work.

Martinborough Vineyards Te Tera Pinot Noir 2010 – £13.50 from The Wine Society
Burgundy is of course the home of Pinot Noir, but it's hard to find a worthwhile wine for under twenty quid in the best known areas. A better strategy is to search out something from the lesser known bits of Burgundy like Givry and Mercurey. Or you could look further afield and try this New Zealander: this has plenty of juicy red fruit with some clove-y spice.

Older lamb, and especially year-old animals known as hogget, which are halfway to becoming mutton, have much more robust flavours and can stand a more full-bodied wine to go with.

The French would tell you that roast lamb should be served with a claret – specifically one from the commune of Pauillac, and I am not about to contradict them. One from the 2004 vintage, if you can get one, would be perfect now. If not, don't worry, almost any full-flavoured red wine will do.

Scala Dei Prior 2008 - £18.49 from Wine Rack
Try this one with your roast lamb with rosemary and garlic. The name has religious overtones: Scala Dei means the ladder of God, or Stairway to Heaven perhaps, if you're a Led Zeppelin fan. The blend of grapes here, Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, might sound more southern French than Spanish, but this wine from the Catalonian region of Priorat has a distinctly Iberian flavour. At 14.5% alcohol the liquorice-tinged, inky fruit packs a punch, but there's also a delicious, tangy freshness that makes it eminently food friendly.

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