Wine and chocolate in the Western Cape in South Africa?

We have hundreds of wine estates in South Africa where many fine wines are produced. Most of them are situated in the Western Cape where we have a Mediterranean climate. People from all corners of the world come to this region for holidays, to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the local wines as well as farm cheeses. Chocolate is now also something to savour on these tours around the vineyards. You will not see any cacao trees growing here. The cacao beans are imported, but the chocolate is made locally and offers a variety of sensations. If you are a chocoholic or have adventurous taste buds, the chocolate pairing experience is something you will either love or hate.

Sharing the palate with wine and chocolates

Cocoa is the brown powder we get from milling the cacao nibs or seeds that are found inside cacao beans. The cacao trees produce oblong green pods that are filled with these delicious cacao beans that can be eaten in the raw or lightly roasted. Inside them we find the particles known as cacao nibs. Chew them and you immediately taste dark chocolate! There are many varieties of cacao trees and the soil and climate play a large role in the flavour of the cacao nibs and hence the special chocolate that will be made. As with wine, the cacao or chocolate connoisseur travels around the world to find  the distinct flavours and properties of the beans from countries as far afield as Brazil, Madagascar, Venezuela, Uganda and Ghana.

To the average consumer chocolate is chocolate and a slab of it is either sweet or bitter. But then you could argue that wine is either red, white, pink, sweet, dry or in between. For the connoisseur all 5 senses need to interact with the intellect and emotions, opinions and preferences. This is what wine and chocolate gurus have in common - a desire to explore the imaginary or latent properties of the humble fruit or seed. A journey from the roots and the soil to the harvesting, production, fermentation and finally the packaging. It is a synergy and the end result could be either blissful or catastrophic. Sometimes the difference is only a matter of opinion because everybody has one.

A Cacao tree in Brazil. The pod contains the bean, surrounded by fruit.

cacao treecacao pod beans and fruit

Cacao beans, the raw materials for chocolate and the little nibs

Cacao beanscacao nibs

Chocolate making in South Africa is a new enterprise, compared to wine. The first grapes were pressed here in the 17th century to make wine for Jan Van Riebeeck who founded the halfway station at the Cape in 1652. He planted the first vines. The French Huguenots made a huge contribution to the wine industry and so did many German and other European settlers. Here in South Africa the Western Cape is strewn with wine estates and their whitewashed homesteads that are still being used in the 21st century. Today these grand manor houses play a major role in the tourist industry and are visited by thongs of tourists who come to sample the wine and glorious sunshine. Their generous whitewashed walls are bursting with pleasant surprises and interesting activities. Enjoy the cheese and chocolate, the wine and the arts and crafts. Some of the wine farms along the famous Western Cape wine route provide entertainment and entertaining activities, including grape stomping.


Pairing wine with chocolate at the Spice Route wine estate – we had a taste!

Enterprising farmers have included new features like cheese, handicrafts, fruit preserves and chocolate making to enhance the experience for visitors. We are all familiar with cheese and wine. But the latest trend is to pair wine with chocolate! I know what most people will say to that – especially the purists who rinse and spit out their wine to preserve their palates. “Urrrrgh!” We were also taken by surprise at the prospect of sampling wine and chocolate but curiosity got the better of us and it was an interesting experience. But I am not sure that our friends would buy into the idea of consuming chocolates with their preciously archived wine.

wine and chocolate

Our tour around the palate was guided by a charming black gentleman who insisted that we first taste a piece of chocolate and let it melt in our mouth. It was bitter chocolate – 70% cacao that came from Madagascar and as with wine, along came the sting of notes to look for: citrus, raisin and spice. Then we were asked to swirl a crisp white Sauvignon Blanc around the chocolate coated palate. The effect is unexpected to say the least. The wine tasted smoother, the chocolate sweeter. The perfect way to let the imagination go crazy and the discerning connoisseurs wax poetic about peaches, berries and new-mown hay. (You know what I mean.)

Peaches nectarinesberries

We each tasted four different chocolates that were paired to two white wines and two red wines. For instance, the Sao Tome chocolate from Margarida claimed to sport a spritz of peach, cherry and spice. It accompanied the other white wine – a Chenin Blank, I recall. Obviously the wine came with a string of associated noses and flavours that then danced the polka with the chocolate. To my confused tongue and spiked taste buds the red Malabar wine was acrid, quite horrid. I took a nibble of the prescribed chocolate and then the wine mellowed out as it flowed across my sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste bud receptors. I took a swig of their famous award-winning 2011 red wine called Chakalaka.  Here is the blurb, straight from the mouth of the bottle:

“Displays weight and cut, offering delicious flavours of steeped plum, pastis-soaked black currant and blackberry preserves that are lined with charcoal and roasted apple wood notes all melded through the finish. Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, Tannat, Grenache and Petite Sirah.”

Great expectations, the rainbow nation, a hot fiery salsa or death by chocolate you may ask? But red wine on an empty stomach was not something for my jaded palate to have with chocolate despite the ambient opportunity. I took a sip. I mean no offence to the wine and would not like to hurt anybody's feelings but I was sensationally knocked out by an acidic punch. It was not dry. I did not equate vinegar with dryness, not even in the Sahara. My palate had been screwed. Even a glass of water did not cleanse the clogged and confused taste buds. All these complex and diverse ingredients squeezed into a bottle to represent our newly evolved rainbow nation is confusing enough for clutz like me to understand.

red grapesred wine and chocolate

Now back to what chakalaka actually is – a painfully hot spicy sauce or gravy to eat with “nyama” (meat) and “pap” (maize porridge). As a child our grocery cupboard was raided whenever our African maid and the gardener wanted to make some. A kick to the palate resulted from a combination of cheap, hot curry powder and anything else she could find such as tomato sauce, chutney and the like. Sometimes fresh chillies were added until it tasted like fire. I loved dipping my ball of porridge into the chakalaka and smacking my lips with them as I shared their meal and laughed at silly jokes.

Today we have a dry red wine to commemorate this occasion. All I remember is that once our maid was caught stealing a bottle of expensive red wine. She admitted to the crime and grumbled that is was very sour. She had to throw it away because even adding sugar had not helped to make it palatable. (She didn’t know about the chocolate in those days!)

So what do chocolates and wine have in common - polyphenols

Polyphenols are chemicals common to all plants. There are many types and they are used to protect the plant from infections and to prevent it from being eaten by animals. So polyphenols influence the colour and flavour of fruits and leaves and provide antioxidants that are good for us as well. We benefit especially from flavonoids, a group of polyphenols that share much in common with grapes and cacao beans. When people say for instance, that they pick up a citrus note from a sip of white wine, they are detecting flavone.

This hexagonally shaped molecule gives a yellow colour to lemons, to grapes and especially to vitamin B2, known as riboflavin. (Flavin means yellow in Latin.) When we nibble chocolate and say guavas, we pick up other flavonoids and that is why you can also detect the same hint of guava in wine. Some people are very good at this. If you are not, you can get plenty of suggestions from the labels on your slabs of chocolates and bottles of wine. They contribute to the taste, but are very good for us in other ways. Consider polyphenols as good tasting medicines. Good for the heart, the body and the mind.

Health benefits of the fruit of the vine - resveratrol as an antimicrobial

red and white grapes

Resveratrol is a phytochemical that is present in the skins and grapes for a specific reason. It protects the vine from a fungus attack. When yeast is infected by a fungus it can be a deadly. So if there is such a threat, the vine produces more of this anti-fungal chemical. It is a powerful antioxidant and it kills the fungus. This is the reason organic grapes have a higher resveratrol content because they are not sprayed with commercial fungicides. For us, there are many health benefit to be had from glugging the resveratrol, especially from red wine that has more exposure to grape skins. We also make wine out of green or as we call them white grapes.

The red pigment comes from the skins. The longer they soak in the grape juice, the deeper the red colour and the higher the resveratrol content. Another great benefit is the way this chemical can ward off colds and flu. What a lovely way to get through the winter! Women are advised to have a glass of wine every night because of the health benefits it provides, especially for the heart. But they say drinking more wine at a time will not give you more health benefits. It will result in a hangover and a headache!

The region the vines come from affects certain phytochemicals

Our Western Cape vines grow in a Mediterranean climate in the Southern hemisphere. It is similar to California and so  these wines do have something in common. The laid back tradition of drinking and enjoying wines is shared on both continents and I think wine drinkers in general are perceptive enough to sniff out their origins. Some of my friends are very good at this! But still, the nuances come from the soil composition. The minerals in particular can affect the acidity of the grapes. The first thing I do when I stroll around a vineyard is take a look at the soil. Is there any limestone or chalkiness to sweeten the wine to take the edge off the tannins? Is there a lot of quartz - to add what they call flint or iron oxide to deepen the reds.

Cacao as a heart medicine, a tonic and an anti-depressant

Dutch cocoaChocolates and beans

This information should appear on the label of a slab of 70% dark chocolate:

An antidepressant - an alternative to marijuana: There is no substitute for that taste sensation of dark, richly satisfying, oozing warm chocolate in your mouth and the rush of sheer pleasure and comfort it brings one. It has been found that the neuro-receptors in the brain that respond to marijuana are equally satisfied by cacao. Perhaps this is why we crave chocolate and are comforted by it. The same benefits can be derived from chewing the cacao nibs on their own or by adding cacao powder to hot beverages. You get a kick out of the psychoactive compounds including methylxanthines, biogenic amines and cannabinoid-like fatty acids that form part of the complex chemistry of a cacao bean.

A stimulant and antibiotic: Theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant and as a heart and kidney tonic due to its powerful diuretic properties. It is also what we call a cancer fighting chemical.  The caffeine in cocoa is low, about 5 – 10mg per cup as opposed to 40 – 60 mg in normal tea or coffee. Cocoa stimulates the release of glycogen from the liver to raise your own blood sugar levels from within. Traditionally cacao was used as systemic as well as topical remedy for treating boils and septicaemia as it had the ability to fight certain pathogens, especially mould and bacteria.

To treat nausea and vomiting: 70% cacao makes a bitter natural slab of chocolate that is more of a medicine than a treat. People who suffer from nausea, especially cancer patients who undergo radiation and chemotherapy find it particularly helpful in controlling the urge to vomit.

Medicine for a healthy heart and blood vessels: Slabs of natural, bitter chocolate are rich in phytochemicals that are good for the heart and the blood vessels. Research indicates that some of these flavonoids have the ability to prevent age-related hypertension. Cacao is rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium that also help to control blood pressure.

Caffeine? Cocoa does contain some naturally occurring caffeine, but not as much as in the same serving of coffee, ginseng, guarana or green tea. Most slimming drugs also contain stimulants, diuretics and tonics but not in such a delightful combination of trace elements, as well as polyphenols that have a strong antioxidant activity within the heart and stomach.

For aches and pains and better breathing: The Incas added cinnamon and chillies to their chocolate mixtures to enhance the health benefits. Little did they know that cinnamon acts like insulin and chillies contain a chemical called guaiphenesin. It is a common ingredient in cough mixtures that helps to break up mucous and ease a tight chest. Cacao contains endorphins (feel good hormones) and it also facilitates the release our own endorphins to ease aches and pains.

Inca chocolate

As an aphrodisiac and to help with PMS: Cacao was used by the ancient Incas and Mayans as an aphrodisiac. It was given to victims of human sacrifice. (Death by chocolate!) Chocolate is definitely something to give to women before their periods or when they get too moody. Today women still crave chocolate when they are premenstrual, depressed, have water retention or are just feeling low. In this case, a glass of red wine would be a great therapeutic companion to a tablet or two of dark chocolate.

There is a reason why some people can't live without chocolate!

If you are serious about becoming a wine connoisseur then the best place to start is by opening a bottle. A wine merchant once asked us what is the best wine? He told us that the best wine is the wine that YOU like! The same applies to chocolate. My Mother buys a cheap slap of fruit and nut milk chocolate from the supermarket and enjoys two pieces after dinner every night. She only drinks wine when she has company. Mom has her rules: "never drink alone, don't drink if you need to and don't drink too much." But no wine with her two after dinner choccies! Never.



The wine route near Paarl, South Africa

Wine Tasting with chocolate or cheese

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