Just a few words about Laurence Alemanno who received us in her chocolate shop for this unusual tasting : She just didn't suddenly opened one day a business dealing with chocolate bars like an unsuspecting visitor might think, it came after a long thorough learning on the commodity, not only with the making process for chocolate but for the cocoa trees at the source of the delicacy, and she's a scientist in that matter with a PhD in Plant Physiology she got at the University of Montpellier (Languedoc) after which she worked for CIRAD, a French agricultural research organization where she authored a thesis on cocoa trees. She spent no less than 14 years in research, travelling to different cocoa-growing countries for that purpose. She also wrote 7 book on chocolate including this one on raw chocolate where you'll learn to appreciate the real thing versus the industrial chocolate where the precious & healthy polyphenols are destroyed along the making process. This all sounds very very similar to the natural-wine versus commercial wines issues in some ways, and again it's nice that she's located so close to the Cave des Papilles (no disguised advertising here, be sure of that). Laurence by the way also organizes tasting sessions where people learn to feel the different qualities of chocolates which helps them discover which type of chocolate they like better.
By the way I recently stumbled upon the unsettling food pyramid designed by a certain Dr Gundry (heard of the plant paradox ?) who is said to have had some success in fighting various diet-based disorders, and although several things I love are flagged the good omen is high-content-cocoa chocolate, red wine/Champagne, fennel and olive oil are praised. I'm still digging here but I'd say that beyond the first impression of a car dealer pushing for buying his stuff there may be truth in his approach.
James Darsonville was our Champagne man that day, he is an experienced oenologist (now retired) who since 1969 did consultancy work for 150 maisons, including for people you may know, for example Françoise Bedel or Jacques Selosse. James Darnonville was the first to encourage the use of MCR instead of the usual sweet mix or dodage after the disgorgement. MCR for moût concentré rectifié (concentrated rectified must) is a must from which had everything but sugar & water removed and which has been then further concentrated. The must used here is not necessarily from the Champagne region but when you use a regular dosage with sugar made from either sugar beet or sugar cane it has an even more remote connection to Champagne, he says. The three Champagne demi-secs we'll have that days with the chocolate were made with MCR instead of dosage. James Darsonville made a lot of research and trials with MCR and he can make comparative tastings between Champagne wines made with traditional dosage and the ones made with MCR, the latter always winning he says.
The other thing about James Darsonville is his Champagne glasses. Along his decades-old career as an oenologist, he went through many tastings and wasn't fully satisfied with the glasses, plus there was this disconnect with the glasses used by the trade and the ones favored by the average family, so he designed one himself, going as far as find the factory to make them. The first crystalware factory was in France but it closed down so now he has his glasses made in Slovakia. He signs each of them individually and sandblasts the bottom so that the bubbling is perfect. He says no other maker sandblasts their glasses like he does and the bubbling character is then left to random factors like invisible dirt or towel fragments (ultra-clean glasses have few bubbles). These glasses are not cheap though, you'll pay 29 € each if you buy directly from him, which may bring your set of glasses at an astronomical height if you want them for your wedding...
James Darsonville sells his glasses mostly by word of mouth, but they seem to find their way in a number of prestigious tables, and for example his glasses are the ones chosen by the sommelier of Le Cinq (Georges V) in Paris, and by the way the only grower Champagne at Le Cinq (which is known for its high end cellar) is a maison he did consulting for, Diebolt-Vallois.
The tasting was also for us a way to reconnect with the demi-sec, a type pf Champagne which has been possibly unfairly looked down, and from I learn that evening, for a reason : While at the origin the Champagne was often sweet, during the 20th century the focus was more on dry and brut bubblies, and from what I understand the semi-sweet was made with unsatisfactory wines that couldn't be used for dry, so they were made a semi-weet, the sugar & dosage hiding the defects. James Darsonville says that in 1992 when he fought to persuade the Maisons de Champagne to use the MCR instead of the usual dosage for the disgorgement replacement, he saw immediately that this would do a very good job for the semi-sweet Champagne, but his colleagues weren't sharing his views, keeping on capitilizing all the production on Brut & Extra-Brut. Even today the proportion of maisons using concentrated must (MCR) instead of the usual sugar-based dosage is very small, and they're the ones that are the most focused of preserving the original quality of their wines.
Making a Champagne with concentrated must instead of dosage needs lots of tastings for the oenologist to select the best type that respects the wine, and James says for example that at Champagne Bedel for example they make two series of 6 bottles for each cuvée, one serie in extra-brut and the other in brut, each bottle getting a different type of concentrated must (MCR) and by group-tasting these different versions they can select the ideal one. James says that he encourages also the Champagne growers to keep the bottles a minimum of 6 months between the dosage and the sale and shipping. The MCR addition must have the time to blend correctly in harmony with the wine. At Bedel they keep the bottles a year after the dosage before shipping. James says that the use of conventional dosage (named liqueur d'expédition in French) also accelerates prematurely the aging of Champagne. That is because this conventional dosage is a blend of sugar (beet or cane) and wine which is made in a fondoir where the mix will turn for hours exposed to the air, notwithstanding the fact that the wine part is usually older wine that have matured a couple of years, and for James this makes a starter for an accelerated maturation of the Champagne in which it'll be added. He says that when he began to work in Champagne in the late 1960s' this accelerated maturation brought by the dosage was welcome because at the time the tirage took place on bottles that had layed 12 months and not 15 like today (the regulation changed since), and for the grower Champagne also these Champagnes weren't made with reserve wines (unlike for the négoce), meaning that the Champagne could be very "green".
We prepared our mouth with a regular demi-sec Champagne by the négoce Maison Henriot and someone around the table found it to have notes of cocoa on the nose, we were already salivating for the coming pairing experiment... the three Champagnes we'd taste after that with the chocolate were made by using MCR instead of conventional dosage. This Champagne was vinous in its expression, first because it's an "old" Champagne (no vintage printed but we're told it's quite a few years old) and because the traditionnal dosage accelerates the organoleptic maturity. James Darsonville also wanted us to begin with this Champagne so that we could compare with one that had MCR instead of the sugary dosage mixture. This first Champagne was nice to drink for me, nothing particular that stands out though.
There are several reasons why semi-sweet Champagne isn't considered very well among the amateurs, the first being that the base wines used for these demi-secs weren't always the best, and the amateurs shared the idea that people who liked semi-sweet Champagne weren't true connoisseurs. And as if to add fodder to this argument, the négoce houses always use secondary-quality wines for their semi sweet, wines that are condidered not good enough for their Brut or Extra Brut (the sugary dosage they add can hide the defects). James Darsonville says that for his part, when he works for a grower Champagne domaine for their semi sweet, he always uses cuvées that could be considered perfectly fit for a vintage Champagne (a cuvée millésimée). and with using the concentrated must instead of conventional dosage, the original quality of the wines is respected and enhanced, not hidden.
__ Champagne Danteny-Mangin Premier Cru demi-sec tradition
Then we had our first (at least knowingly) semi-sweet Champagne made with MCR instead of the regular sweet dosage, meaning that in this Champagne everything comes from the grapes including the concentrated must that is being used at the disgorgement to replace the expelled sediments. In a regular Champagne dosé you also drink something that comes from sugar beet or sugar cane, which are not the typical crops found near the vineyards.
The Champagne comes from a Maison in Mareuil-sur-Ay, it's a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This Champagne has gotten its [MCR] dosage since 2015. Around the table people notice it's more delicate, very refined without the pomaded side typical of the conventional dosage. I won't say that I'd recognize blind from a MCR Champagne and a conventional dosage but I think I begin to understand and my palate as well. And in terms of sweetness we feel there's a dosage here but if we had to guess how much sugar we'd be off the mark : it's 45 grams per liter (James told us) but it really feels like lot less. And he says that the négoce Champagne we had before had something like 35 gr, and felt like much more indeed in the mouth (although enjoyable I admit). The Danteny has certainly more character. It's not printed on the label which type of dosage they use when you look at a bottle of Champagne but James Darsonville as an oenologist has been working for up to 150 domaines at the same time and knows who makes what, and many of these growers ended up following his advice on switching to MCR for the dosage. And he says there's not a single négoce (much of the Champagne production is made by the négoce) that uses MCR, certainly another reason to look for grower Champagne.
This champagne has a very expressive nose, with an appealing full-mouth feel, nice texture and refineness. More bubbles also than the nécoce we got before.
That was indeed an unusual experience to try these non-conventional chocolate bars coming from different countries, all certainly closer from the early chocolate eaten by our ancestors when the precious commodity landed in Europe. Like everybody I eat commercial chocolate even if I try to choose from the plethora of brands and types, but with these chocolates it's like when you're used to soda and try, say, an artisanal Macha tea from Japan, you get to find your marks.
We'll begin with the lower-cocoa chocolate and move up, trying to compare the Champagne pairings.
__ Chocolat Augustin from the Dominican Republic, 70 % cocoa (pictured on top, but it's blurred, you'll see the packaging better on the link). Augustin is based in the Vendée region (Loire) and makes its products from selected cocoa beans. Laurence knows the man behind this business, a lovely person, she says. This chocolate, made from organic beans from the Dominican Republic is very soft, not bitter, with dry-fruits aromas, it's an easy type of chocolate without spicy or tobacco aromas.
Here the sweetness of the Champagne tends to overcome the couple, the chocolate remaining in the background. what we notice with the pairing is that, first it's fine for the harmony of the character, and thanks to the chocolate the sweetness of the Champagne is attenuated, the thing that remains is the richness. James says that this is the same if you drink a semi-sweet Champagne with a desert. On the other hand if you try a dry bubbly with chocolate the wine will feel puckery, acerbic, because there's an inbalance with the chocolate.
__ Venchi, chocolate from Ecuador (Tena-Napo valley) , organic beans (Nacional Arriba), 85 %. More powerful aromas here, more intensity, more round/smooth (what we call gras in French). Christophe feels aromas of herbs, pepper, and notes of horse dung (on the positive side of it, I see what he means and agree, there's something like that). Laurence who knows all of her chocolates says she finds it always very fresh, very refreshing gustatorily. This type of chocolate (Arriba) is usually very floral.
Here with the Champagne (still the Danteny-Mangin) you feel more the sweetness of the wine, the higher cocoa input (85 %) putting the sugar of the bubbly forward. Nice paring. Christophe likes the fact that thanks to the Champagne, the buttered side of the chocolate fades a bit, adding some length to the chocolate feel.
__Akesson's, single plantation chocolate from Madagascar, 100 % Criollo cocoa, Bejofo estate. Organic of course. Laurence says this chocolate is very fruity with red-fruit type of aromas. Christophe says that this is a 100 % that you can really eat, meaning that this type of hard-core chocolate is too weird for most people. Laurence says that she is pretty sure to offer the largest selection of 100%-cocoa chocolate in Paris, so there's choice for every taste in terms of un corrected chocolate. this one is indeed very enjoyable, no dryness or astringency.
With the Champagne (Danteny-Mangin) it fares pretty well, especially that at this stage the bubbles have calmed down, and there's no sweetness competition : the chocolate has a lot of gras with lots of freshness but no sugar (very unusual feel), and this goes well with the demi-sec.
Time to try another semi-sweet Champagne, this time a Gaston Révolte, cuvée Symphonie du Val d'Or, 1er Cru, Terroir d'Avenay Val d'Or, lieu-dit "les plantels". Old vines of Pinot Noir 100 %, tirage : may 16th 2011, disgorged may 10th 2017. This grower Champagne comes from a family domaine (8 or 10 hectares) that keeps a 4 Ardennais draft horses to plow the vineyards, here is an unusual example of enduring tradition for this region. They're said to be the first in Champagne to have brought back the horses between the rows, in order to avoid the compacting of the soils (which they keep grassy part of the year), they also use the horses to take away the grape boxes at the harvest. James Darsonville also did oenology consulting for this domaine.
That's a very nice demi-sec indeed, with a generous nose and ripe aromas. Very thin bubbles, a very vinous champagne. In the mouth, very fruity, goes down pretty easy.
__ La Vall D'Or, Xolo Nativo, Tres Especies. Made in Catalonia (didn't find their website) by a South-American shaman, Laurence says with a smile (I think she's the woman on this video), and this chocolate has cinnamon, clove and nutmeg added. The chocolate has a granular texture, she says they like it this way in Spain. Very interesting chocolate with these spices that make it enjoyable.
Here with the Champagne Gaston Révolte, there's an excellent pairing because the sugar feel of the Champagne (it's 45-gram sweet !) fades and the spices in the chocolate take over for the better, still ending with a good and harmonious balance. Maryse loves this pairing also, I think there's unanimity. If we had a Brut instead, there would be a feel of astringency that would be very unwelcome. Speaking of the pairing ability of the semi-sweet Champagne, James Darsonville says that Asian food is going very well with it, like Vietnamese food for example.
We tried a milk chocolate, the Belledonne Lait Pavot Sésame (poppy & sesame), a nicely crunchy bar, with a texture similar to a type of chocolate you find in France, made with tiny amounts of raw, unground sea salt (sel de Guérande), these are the sesame seeds in the bar. Made in France, organic ingredients, cocoa from the Dominican Republic. Here the chocolate, while being good by itself, has a very average pairing with the Champagne, nothing frankly awkward, but not really rewarding either.
Back to a strong black chocolate, with the Venchi 85 % with cocoa from Ecuador, and here the nice bitterness of the chocolate comes nicely to the surface when you drink the semi-sweet with it. You need this type of opposition to make an enjoyable pairing, a milk chocolate is not challenging enough for the semi sweet. B. says that the Champagne is propping up the chocolate with this Venchi.
We try another pairing with this sweet Champagne from the maison Fleury-Gille, Rosé d'Ispahan Doux (rosé de saignée). The domaine works on 8 hectares in Trélou-sur-Marne and Passy-sur-Marne. This is a doux (sweet) and not a demi-sec (semi-sweet), meaning that the sugar content is more than 50 grams per liter (probably around 60 here). For the record, the semi sweet has between 33 and 50 grams of sugar per liter (keep in mind that it's just a unit, there's no beet/cane sugar adding here, it's just grape sugar). Nice freshness feel.
We'll drink it along munching a bar of Chocolat Guilleminot Choc'Fleurs, a white chocolate with hibiscus flower. Organic ingredients. Very smooth and tender chocolate. Very nice pairing in spite of being a milk chocolate. Goes well also with the Augustin 70 %. James Darsonville tries it with the Akesson's 100 % and this sweet bubbly rosé offers a feel of freshness and acidity with lemon notes that stands out, very surprising and enjoyable, no unpleasant sweetness at all.
Source : http://www.wineterroirs.com/2018/02/chocolate_and_champagne.html