If you’ve found this post, I’m willing to bet you’re drinking a red wine that tastes like chocolate. But is it milk chocolate or dark chocolate?
The chocolate and mocha flavors common in wine come from oak. There’s no real chocolate in your wine. Winemakers use toasted French or American oak to give your wine rich dark and milk chocolate and cocoa flavors. Other flavors that come from oak include baking spice, coffee, coconut, butterscotch, licorice, and even tobacco.
- If a Wine Tastes Like Chocolate, Does That Mean There’s Chocolate in It?
- How Do Chocolate Flavors Get into Wine
- Why Use Oak in Winemaking?
- What Flavor Does Oak Add to Wine?
- How Does the Winemaker Know What Oak to Use to Give the Wine Chocolate Flavors?
- What Wines Taste Like Chocolate?
- What Wines Don’t Taste Like Chocolate?
- Final Thoughts – Chocolate in Wine Comes from Oak
- Thirsty for More?
If a Wine Tastes Like Chocolate, Does That Mean There’s Chocolate in It?
No, there isn’t chocolate in your wine if it tastes like chocolate or cocoa. Even if the wine tastes powerfully of chocolate, you won’t find chocolate on any wine ingredient label. Instead, you’re tasting the hand of the winemaker!
How Do Chocolate Flavors Get into Wine
The chocolate you taste in your wine comes from the winemaking process. The winemaker put the young wine in contact with oak. Typically, winemakers use oak barrels to give your wine chocolate flavors and aromas.
But not all chocolate flavors come from oak barrels, which are expensive.
If you’re drinking a less expensive red wine that tastes like chocolate, then the winemaker most likely used oak staves, oak chips, or even oak shavings.
These are called oak alternatives and are less expensive. Oak alternatives work more quickly to infuse your wine with chocolate flavors because of a greater surface-to-wine contact area.
All sides of an oak stave touch the wine, for example, whereas wine inside of the barrel touches one side of a stave.
Faster infusion of flavors means the wine can be released for sale sooner if the winemaker’s working within tight profit margins.
Why Use Oak in Winemaking?
Oak is one of the only ingredients winemakers can use to manipulate the flavor of their wines. Winemakers use oak to add layers of complexity and nuance to their wines.
What Flavor Does Oak Add to Wine?
- Heavy Toast American Oak: Will impart flavors of char, spice and roasted coffee; with hints of vanilla and butterscotch.
- Medium Plus Toast American Oak: Will impart flavors of campfire, vanilla, roasted coffee and butterscotch.
- Dark Toast French Oak: Will impart flavors of dark coffee, some carmelized sweetness, and a roasty smokey character
- Heavy Toast French Oak: Will impart strong flavors of clove, spice, smoke, and butterscotch; along with a small amount of vanilla and coconut flavor.
- Heavy Toast French Oak: Will impart dark chocolate, cocoa, black coffee, toasted almond, toasted hazelnut, and licorice.
- Medium Toast French Oak: Will enhance chocolate and fruit flavors
This is a list of common oak flavors from both American and French oak species and different toasting levels.
Different species of oak give wines different flavors.
Barrel makers will toast their barrels (or staves) over a fire to create a char. Different processing methods give the wine unique flavors.
Heavier toasting processes can reap higher intensities of caramel, mocha, and coffee flavors in your wine.
As you can see heavy and medium toast French oak, or charring the barrel over different intensities of flame, will give the wine dark chocolate and mocha flavors.
So if your wine tastes like chocolate, the winemaker probably used medium or heavy toast French oak.
How Does the Winemaker Know What Oak to Use to Give the Wine Chocolate Flavors?
Every company that makes and supplies oak for winemaking uses its own in-house processes to craft barrels, staves, and chips. Winemakers work with their suppliers to order oak that’s made specifically to their winemaking needs.
Think of oak like customizing your new car: Do you want tinted windows? A backup camera? Satellite radio?
Winemakers decide what flavors they want and then order a barrel with that profile from the barrel supplier. The barrel supplier can mix and match individual staves on the barrel to create unique flavor combinations.
Tip: Did you know we’ve been using oak for wine since Roman times? I had to sit through a 4 hours of lecture on oak and wine making, but I condensed that to a much shorter history of oak and wine with this overview post.
What Wines Taste Like Chocolate?
Chocolate’s a rich, savory tasting note closely associated with red wines. Here’s a list of wines that often have chocolate flavors:
Argentina’s #1 export wine, Malbec, works well with oak and specifically chocolate flavors. Dark chocolate and coffee compliment Malbec’s red and blue fruit, along with its velvety soft tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon has rich black fruit, cassis and bramble. These wines frequently have notes of dark chocolate that wrap around the wine like decadent bonbons.
Merlot wines deliver smooth tannins and black cherry, plum, and raspberry. Expect mocha in your Merlot, and most likely dark chocolate as well.
Originally from France and now grown widely around the world (Shiraz in Australia), Syrah has a savory quality that makes it unique. Expect your syrah to have layers of black fruit and black pepper that are often complimented with oak to give your wine coffee, cocoa, and even tobacco.
Grenache can be made into a lighter, fruit-forward red wine, or into a more nuanced wine of complicated flavor with the help of oak. Look for Grenache (or Garnacha in Spain) with milk chocolate and warm spice.
What Wines Don’t Taste Like Chocolate?
If you dislike chocolate, then maybe you want to avoid wines that taste like chocolate.
- White Wines. White wines are a safe choice if you dislike the chocolate flavor in your wine glass. Chocolate and mocha tend to overwhelm the delicate floral and fresh fruit qualities of these whites. You may still find oak qualities with fuller-bodied white wines, for example, an oaked Chardonnay, but the flavors stop at warm spice and vanilla, not cocoa.
- Rose Wines. Rosé wines are another solid option if you dislike chocolate in your wine. Like white wines, rosés forefront crisp fruits, not the heavier flavors of full-bodied reds.
- Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau is made with the Gamay grape. These wines are released soon after harvest and the winemaker doesn’t usually have time to use oak. Look for the word ‘Nouveau’ on red wines that are stylistically the same as Beaujolais Nouveau for a safe no-chocolate alternative.
- Check out this post on the quirky backstory of Beaujolais Nouveau wine.
- Other Red Wines. The world’s awash with delicious red wines made in a wide variety of styles – some with oak, some without oak. You’ll need to read your red wine labels carefully (or online tasting notes) if you want to buy a red wine but don’t want the chocolate. Sorry. No easy way around it.
Fun Wine Tasting Tip: Check out how to pair Champagne and chocolate here.
Final Thoughts – Chocolate in Wine Comes from Oak
If you taste chocolate or cocoa in your wine, it comes from the winemaking process. The winemaker used oak to give your wine that mocha flavor you can smell. Big, bold red wines are more likely to have chocolate notes than white, rose, or nouveau wine styles.
Thirsty for More?
I know that when I was first getting into wine, I really needed practice figuring out how the winemaking processes created different flavor combinations in my wine. I went through a lot of bottles, but wish someone had given me a lineup of common wines to compare.
So, I put together this post that gives you different wine tasting flight ideas to jump start your personal wine journey. Simple and straight forward.