Happy Valentine's Day!
If you're like us you may be scrambling around trying to figure out what to do for Valentine's Day that will make for a happy memory rather than an allergy-induced one. While this post won't be up in time to help most of you, hopefully it can help you for next year. Or really just FYI for a romantic evening that is not on V-Day.
We challenged ourselves to find three tasty allergy-friendly chocolates and pair them with allergy-friendly wine for this romantic holiday. It was a pretty tall order and it turns out we need way more experience before we can call ourselves satisfied. That being said, there are some things we learned from this experience that we'd like to share with you.
First, about wine: wine is generally made from grapes, although occasionally other fruit, and is widely believed to be free from most allergens as its assumed that wine is just fermented fruit. Well, that's not exactly correct. Here are a few things that the more educated know about wine and allergies:
Sulfites - there are two kinds of sulfites, those that occur naturally, are in all wines and impossible to remove from wine (therefore there is no such thing as 'sulfite-free wine') and those that are added during the aging process and are used as preservatives. If you think that you have a reaction to sulfites there may be a few reasons behind that: one, it's the added sulfites that are a problem for you and so you should stick with younger wines; two, you are actually having a reaction to the histamines that are present in red wine and therefore white wines are a safer bet for you; or three, you have asthma or/and are also prone to hay fever, in which case you can either play it super safe by not drinking wine at all or go the riskier route and pop an allergy pill before indulging. Just for reference's sake, dried fruit has about 44 times more sulfites than wine so if you think you're allergic to sulfites than you probably get a reaction when eating dried fruit too. For further info on sulfites, check out this link.
Vegan - for those of us on a non-animal product diet, or allergic to eggs, fish, or dairy, it may be interesting to note that there is such a thing as vegan wine and the reason for that is that there is such a thing as non-vegan wine. Whaat? Yeah. When wine is young it's hazy with all the tiny molecules of ingredients that are it's makeup. Older wines self-stabilize but winemakers will speed along the process by clarifying their wines through a practice called 'fining'. Traditional fining agents used are casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (an animal protein), and isinglass (fish bladder protein). These agents aren't known as additives because they are more or less removed from the wine along with the haze molecules before the wine is bottled, however those of us with severe allergies may still have a reaction. Some modern winemakers use other fining agents - clay-based bentonite or activated charcoal - to remove haze molecules from wine. For further information about vegan wines, check out this link. For a list of vegan wines, check out this link. If a wine you want is not on the list, try speaking directly to the distributor or winemaker and ask if their wine is either processed with bentonite or activated charcoal or, barring that, if it is unfined and unfiltered. If the answer is no, than the wine isn't vegan.
Gluten-Free - the assumption that wine, unlike beer and other liquors, is essentially gluten-free is more or less correct. There are rare cases when wine that has been aged in oak barrels is exposed to a sealant that is made from a flour paste but the gluten is less than the 20 parts per million that is required for labeling laws and is essentially the same amount of gluten that can be found in bottled water. There are also occasionally wines that are filtered with wheat gluten, although this is uncommon. If you find that you have a reaction to certain wines or that your body is very sensitive to even miniscule amounts of gluten, you can try one of two things: one, avoid wines aged in wooden casks (many are aged in steel casks) or two, contact the vineyard directly to inquire about what fining agents they use and whether or not they prefer wheat gluten to other agents. For more information on gluten-free wine, check out this link.
Labeling - It's important to be aware that wine, unlike food, is not held to the same labeling standards and therefore if wine has trace elements of shellfish or eggs or gluten there is no law requiring the winemakers to disclaim that on the label. This is why those of us with severe allergies need to be diligent in understanding where and how the wine is grown and be willing to contact the vineyards directly if needs be, in order to insure our safety.
Organic - currently some wines can be made with organically grown grapes however the process by which wine is made is not at this point in time a 'natural' or 'organic' process, or so our limited research has proven thus far. Therefore, the closest to good-for-you and good-for-the-environment wine you can get is if the bottle is labeled 'made with organically grown grapes'.
Now, for those of us new to the wonderful world of wine (Joy, that's you) wine falls into four basic categories: wine is either red or white and then either sweet or dry. Of course, there are those that are semi-sweet and then there's rose which is a pinkish-white whine but you get the idea.
PAIRING WINE WITH CHOCOLATE
When pairing wine with chocolate it's important to keep in mind that they will each change the flavor and after-tones of the other. A very sweet chocolate might take the bitterness out of a highly astringent wine or a wine with a deep tannin taste but that same wine might make the taste of the chocolate sour.
In researching for this post we asked a friendly sommelier for some advice for wine pairing. While he gave us some suggestions, he did indicate that a wine and chocolate pairing depended just as much on the palate of the consumer as it did on the paired ingredients.
In Super Basic Terms - a dark semisweet chocolate can pair well with a semisweet wine like Merlot or Syrah or Pinot Noir or if it's a richer, unsweetened dark chocolate perhaps a Barolo, Chianti or a Bordeaux; a 'milky' or sweeter chocolate can pair well with a sweeter dessert wine like Riesling, Sweet Sherry, Vintage Port or sweet raisin wines like Banyuls or Recioto della Valpolicella or Sangrantino di Montefalco.
When picking our chocolates we read labels first, trying to find allergy-friendly chocolate bars, and then we tried to find other enticing things like fair trade, non-GMO and organic. We ended up trying ten chocolate bars, only realizing after the fact that we had gotten multiple bars from the same companies in different stores.
We've labeled the chocolates from our favorite to our least favorite and given them a score of 1 to 10 based on our criteria of taste and allergy-friendliness, 10 being the best and 1 being the worst. Our favorite chocolates have more detailed information, while the remaining 7 just have the bare basics. Each chocolate has a link to their respective websites if you would like to look into them yourself.
1. Enjoy Life Boom Choco Boom Bar, Dark Chocolate
Chocolate Percentage - 55-60% cacao
Certifications - Non-GMO Project verified, Certified Gluten-Free by the Gluten Intolerance
Group, Certified Kosher Pareve (containing neither meat nor dairy) by the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Certified Halal through the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, Certified Vegan by Vegan Awareness Foundation, Certified Paleo Friendly by the Paleo Foundation
Ingredients - natural chocolate liquor (non-alcoholic), cane sugar, non-dairy cocoa butter
Allergy-Friendliness - 10/10!
Our favorite chocolate by far, this chocolate tastes absolutely delicious, exactly like a traditional chocolate bar and when you're eating it you're not thinking 'good enough considering it's allergy-friendly'. While the products are packaged in an allergy-free dedicated facility in Indiana, there is no information readily available on the website that indicates where the cacao originates from.
Taste and Texture - smooth, rich, sweet, tastes almost like milk chocolate, can be paired with wafers
Wine Pairings - pairs ok with Merlot but nothing special and exciting; pairing with a sparkling dessert wine negates the sparkles; our best pairing was with a Riesling, as the two seemed to complement each other, allowing the sweetness of the chocolate to smooth out the crispness of the wine while the wine muted some of the rich sugariness of the chocolate; we didn't get a chance to pair this wine with a Sweet Sherry but we have a feeling they might make a great pairing
Pros - is free from the top 14 allergens as well as gluten, tastes like a real chocolate bar, has minimal ingredients
Cons - the sweetest of all the chocolates we tried, this chocolate bar would be hard to eat even half in one sitting it's so rich, and while it was our favorite chocolate it really only paired great with one wine
2. Divine Intensely Rich Dark Chocolate
Chocolate Percentage - 70% dark chocolate
Certifications - Non-GMO Project verified, USDA Organic certified by Quality Assurance International, B Corp certified, Fair Trade USA certified, Certified Kosher by Triangle K, Certified Halal by Halal Zertifikat
Ingredients - cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, sunflower lecithin (emulsifier), vanilla
Taste and Texture - rich, smooth, deep, with cherry undertones, sweeter than you'd expect it to be, would pair well with coffee
Allergy-Friendliness - 6/10
The cacao is from Ghana, and the chocolate bars are manufactured in Germany on equipment shared with other products that may contain nuts, dairy and wheat, before being distributed in Washington, D.C. While we loved this chocolate flavor and texture, we were disappointed that it wasn't absolutely allergy-friendly. We're giving high points for taste but lower points for allergy-questionable ingredients.
Wine Pairings - while it is a dark chocolate we found it didn't pair to advantage with Chianti or Malbec and only worked with Zinfandel if you allowed it to sit in your mouth to let the tastes meld; we also tried it with a sparkling dessert wine and found they did not complement each other; the best pairings were with Riesling and a semi-sweet pomegranate Armenian wine that enhanced the best flavor notes in each
Pros - organic, fair trade, B Corp, Non-GMO, minimal ingredients, tastes like a traditional semisweet dark chocolate should taste, pairs well with coffee and wine
Cons - manufactured on shared equipment so not completely free from allergens, made with sunflower lecithin
3. Pascha Organic Dark Chocolate
Chocolate Percentage - 70% cacao
Certifications - Non-GMO Project verified, bears the Celiac Support Association Recognition Seal, 1% For the Planet member, Fair Trade USA certified, UTZ Sustainable Farming certified, USDA Organic certified by Canadian Seed Institute, Certified Kosher by the Orthodox Union (OU), Certified Kosher by the Organized Kashrus Laboratories (OK), Certified Kosher by the Court of The Chief Rabbi London Beth Din (KLBD), Certified Kosher-Paleo by EarthKosher, Certified Vegan by the Vegan Awareness Foundation
Ingredients - organic chocolate liquor, organic cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, organic vanilla
Taste and Texture - almost chalky, freshly ground cocoa bean taste with a crispy, hard break; seems more like a baking chocolate than a snacking chocolate
Allergy-Friendliness - 8/10
Product of Peru made for the Pascha Chocolate Company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in a dedicated allergy-free facility free from the top 8 most common allergens. It receives high points for allergy-free facility but lower points for taste and texture.
Wine Pairings - we didn't get to try out any wines with this particular chocolate but we would assume, given the similar taste to a chocolate further along down the line, that this chocolate would pair well with a Malbec or even a sparkling wine, which might mitigate some of the chalkiness of the chocolate with the bubbles
Pros - a boatload of certifications, an allergy-free dedicated facility, minimal ingredients
Cons - the taste wasn't terrible but it was definitely a chocolate that you'd totally peg as 'healthy' or 'allergy-friendly' and that was disappointing
4. Divine Dark Chocolate, Hazelnut Truffle - obviously this one lost severe points for having nuts in it but it was actually the second chocolate we tried so we were pretty in love with it until we realized the nut factor. It gets an allergy-friendliness rating of 3/10 - not only does it contain nuts but it's also manufactured on shared equipment that also process items that may contain dairy, wheat and other nuts. Can pair with the same suggestions as made for the above Divine chocolate - Riesling, or a semi-sweet pomegranate Armenian wine, or something like it.
5. Theo Organic Fair Trade Sea Salt 70% Dark Chocolate - this was a hard chocolate with the sea salt adding an almost sandy texture however the salt itself wasn't overwhelming, hints of cherry in the aftertaste and a bit of a bittersweet bite; when pairing with wine we thought it worked ok with Malbec and Chianti, was terrible and sour with Zinfandel and was made pleasant with a Moscato D'Asti that dulled the gritty, saltiness while the chocolate absorbed the sweet bubbles. We didn't like this chocolate as much as the Divine so it got a lower spot on the overall list and it also is processed on shared equipment with basically all the top 8 allergens so as far as allergy-friendliness ratings go, we're giving this a 4/10, only slightly better than the Divine Hazelnut because it doesn't actively contain any allergens. If you don't have severe allergies and can consume products that may contain trace elements of the top 8 allergens and if you are a fan of salted chocolate, than this chocolate is right up your alley.
6. Taza Chocolate Toffee Almond & Sea Salt - this chocolate, like the two following of the same brand, is stone ground which sounds romantic but actually indicates an excessive grittiness in the chocolate that's much like sediment, however this particular chocolate bar negated some of the stone ground grittiness because of the toffee, which didn't have a strong taste at all. At 60% dark chocolate it was semisweet, lending itself to a wine pairing of either Riesling, which subtly tempers or modifies the stone ground quality or Zinfandel so that the grittiness of the chocolate can soak up some of the deep tannin of the wine and allow other flavors to become more discernible. This chocolate gets a little consideration because it pairs well with two wines but the shared manufacturing facility and the presence of nuts in the bar itself makes the rating another 4/10 in the allergy-friendly list.
7. Taza Chocolate Maple Pecan - another Taza chocolate bar, and another bar with nuts, this had a higher concentration of dark chocolate at 70% and without the toffee from the previous bar to moderate the grittiness of the stone ground quality, this chocolate didn't rated worse in the taste and texture category. We didn't try this chocolate with wine but we would assume that the Zinfandel or the Riesling would both work with this chocolate as well. This chocolate bar gets an allergy-friendly rating of 2/10.
8. Taza Chocolate Wicked Dark - the third Taza chocolate bar this bar didn't have any nuts in it but it was 95% dark chocolate. We suggest this bar only for those who love dark chocolate. We found the taste very deep, very thick, and very gritty. We also didn't try this particular bar with a wine because it was just too strong to taste again but we're thinking if we'd been brave enough, a semisweet red like a Pinot Noir might have helped mitigate some of the grittiness and brought out the sweet behind the bitter. Maybe. This wine gets points for not having nuts but it was still manufactured on shared equipment and it's an acquired taste - allergy-friendly rating is 2/10.
9. Madecasse Madagascar Toasted Coconut Dark Chocolate - this chocolate bar of 70% cacao, is the second-to-least chocolate tasting chocolate. It had a definite coconut taste and a crispy break but was definitely an acquired taste when it comes to chocolate. While it claimed to be made from 'heirloom cacao' it didn't taste anything like traditional or recognizable chocolate and being manufactured on shared equipment it didn't get many points for allergy-safety either. Our allergy-friendly rating is 1/10 - the taste wasn't great, we couldn't find a wine to help it taste better, and it's not that allergy-friendly to begin with anyway.
10. Belvas Belgian Chocolate, Vegan-Vegetalien - this chocolate was 82% dark chocolate and, while it contained almonds, it was vegan and gluten-free. But that's about all the good we can say about this chocolate because it tasted like the least chocolatey chocolate we've ever had. It was grainy, bitter, crumbly and so inedible in our opinion that we suggest you only get this as a back-up chocolate if you are displeased with your date. Then go ahead and make the experience complete by grossing them out with a pairing of this chocolate with Chianti. They'll either never cross you again - or never see you again. Our allergy-friendly rating for this chocolate - nah, it's 1/10 and that's because we're giving them props for trying.
You can't say experimenting with chocolate and wine is a trying experience and we'd love to give it another go, now that we've learned some new things. So if you wish we'd tried some other brands go ahead and tell us which ones in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, don't hesitate to let us know - we'd love to do another experiment like this again soon.