Visit a winery this month and chances are good that you’ll be offered a piece of chocolate to nibble on as you taste the wine.
A dessert wine or other sweet wine, such as port, would seem like the obvious pairing. But wineries often offer chocolate with a dry wine.
Not everyone loves the combination of wine and chocolate, but the pairing has enough fans that wine companies have started combining the two in the bottle.
The idea sounds disgusting to some and delicious to others.
The trend seems to have started about five years ago, and it includes a local Yadkin Valley winery.
Almost every supermarket or wine shop now offers at least one chocolate wine.
These concoctions for chocolate lovers fall into two basic types: with or without dairy.
The wines made without dairy seem more like wine. The addition of milk or cream turns the beverage into a sort of spiked chocolate milk.
Another way to describe the cream-based chocolate wines would be as Bailey’s Irish Cream knockoffs with less alcohol — and beverages you don’t have to make a special trip to the ABC store to get. Bailey’s is made with Irish whiskey, cream, sugar and herbs and has an alcohol content of 17 percent.
Chocolate wines are at least slightly sweet. Some can be served at room temperature, but the cream-based wines benefit from chilling.
Most of these sell for $10 to $15 for a regular 750-ml bottle.
Chocovine, a cream-based chocolate wine first marketed in 2009, claims to be the top-selling chocolate wine in the country, and it certainly is the easiest to find in Winston-Salem.
Chocovine is sold in such wine shops as Wine Merchants Gourmet and in many supermarkets, including Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods.
Chocovine advertises itself as a blend of red wine with Dutch chocolate and cream. Its label, though, says it’s made with “grape wine with artificial flavors, cream and artificial colors.” Note that chocolate is not mentioned.
Chocovine also comes in several flavors, such as raspberry, espresso and whipped cream.
The other leading brand is Chocolate Shop, sold at Lowes Foods. Fresh Market has it, too, though I noticed it on the closeout table the other day.
Chocolate Shop contains “red wine with natural dark chocolate flavors.” The regular flavor has no dairy, but the Crème de Cocoa flavor does. Chocolate Shop also comes in Strawberry, Mint and Sparkling flavors, though I found only the original flavor in local stores.
Total Wine carries one brand with cream, Brown Cow, and two without, Red Decadence and Koda.
Other brands sold in our area include Cocoa di Vine (at Wine Merchants) and Chocolat Rouge (at Harris Teeter.)
Koda has 18 percent alcohol, similar to many dessert wines, but all of the other wines I looked at contain normal amounts of alcohol, between 12 percent and 14 percent.
I sampled a few of these wines with Beth Binder and Allison Chrapek, two of the owners of Wine Merchants Gourmet.
Binder said that Wine Merchants started carrying chocolate wine several years ago.
“We’ve had Chocovine for several years,” Binder said. “Now every distributor has their version of it. Once people saw how well it was doing, everyone jumped on board.”
We tasted three cream-based wines. The Cocoa di Vine regular chocolate, the Cocoa di Vine Cherry and the Chocovine Espresso.
The regular Cocoa di Vine tastes much as I would expect milk, chocolate and wine to taste: like someone dumped some alcohol into my chocolate milk. Not my idea of a great beverage, but this was tolerable. I just felt like it was a waste of chocolate milk.
Things went downhill with Cocoa di Vine Chocolate Cherry. Chrapek said that it’s reminiscent of chocolate-covered cherries. But we all agreed that it also had a medicinal taste. I couldn’t help thinking of cherry cough syrup.
The Chocovine Espresso was better. It’s much thicker, and it seemed more chocolatey. More important, it went down more smoothly than Cocoa di Vine. I felt that the coffee flavor helped smooth out the alcohol. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it, but I could drink it.
Next we tasted two non-cream wines. I liked both of them better than the cream wines.
The Chocolate Shop original flavor contains only red wine and natural chocolate flavors. It’s quite sweet, at 7 percent residual sugar, but doesn’t taste it. It’s full-bodied and dark, and plenty flavorful. I could see this as a dessert wine or after-dinner drink.
Finally, we tasted the only North Carolina chocolate wine, Shadow Springs Vineyard’s Dark Shadow, which is sold at Wine Merchants, City Beverage and Barnhill’s in Winston-Salem. Or you can get it at the winery in Hamptonville, about 45 minutes from Winston-Salem.
Dark Shadow is made with natural dark chocolate and cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot, said Chuck Johnson, who co-owns the winery with his wife, Jamey. “It’s the same wine that goes in our Meritage (dry red),” Johnson said.
The Johnsons had never heard of chocolate wine when they got the idea for it about five years ago.
“We were talking to our winemaker one day about doing different things. Jamey really loves dark chocolate, and we had some chocolate around and Jamey said. ‘I’d love it if we could put this in the wine.’”
They experimented with different wines and different chocolates for about a year before introducing Dark Shadow in 2008.
Now it’s their best-seller, accounting for about 500 cases of an average 3,000 cases a year.
Dark Shadow sells for $18 at the winery. It has 3.8 percent residual sugar and doesn’t taste very sweet. The alcohol level is 12.5 percent.
“We like to serve it at room temperature,” Johnson said, “because we found that when it’s chilled, it closes down the chocolate flavor a bit.
“Sometimes we lightly chill it. But at room temperature you get that big chocolate nose.”
In the glass, Dark Shadow is lighter and less sweet than Chocolate Shop — and that turned out to be a good thing.
“This may be the best one of all of them,” Chrapek said after tasting Dark Shadow.
I agreed. I liked Chocolate Shop, but after a few sips it may wear on you because it’s so heavy. In contrast, I could sip more of Dark Shadow because it’s not so sweet.
“We’ll have it with chocolate mousse, chocolate cheesecake or strawberry cheesecake,” Johnson said. “And sometimes it is the dessert.”
Another favorite way to enjoy Dark Shadow is mixed with Shadow Springs Strawberry Shortcake, a sweet strawberry wine.