Photos: Todd Montgomery
When I was invited to a “chocolate wine tasting” and food pairing at Thornton Winery, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. Chocolate wine? Is there really such a thing? Is it really wine? Would these wines be just too sweet for my tastes? But I was pleasantly surprised at the excellence of the wines (which were definitely really wines) and at how well they could be paired with a variety of dishes—and not just desserts. These wines were not overwhelmingly sweet and they could all easily accompany a variety of meal courses. Their common denominator was that they all had hints of chocolate, some stronger than others, but all nicely palatable.
Thornton Winery, which produces award-winning champagnes and premium varietal wines, is located in the heart of the Temecula Valley Wine Country, only about an hour from San Diego or an hour and a half from L.A. Thornton, one of the earliest Temecula Valley wineries, was established in 1988 and has been a favorite spot for wine and champagne lovers ever since. The winery has a world-class restaurant, Café Champagne, a lovely outdoor terrace and herb garden, an enticing gift shop, and a pleasant sit-down tasting room where you can be served a variety of tastings and also order bread, cheese, salads, soups and other delicious appetizers and meals.
We were introduced to the chocolate wines by Thornton’s owner, John Thornton, Thornton’s president, Steve Thornton, and Thornton’s winemaker, David Vergari. The very special plated food accompaniments were prepared and introduced by Thornton’s widely acclaimed Executive Chef, Steve Pickell.
Our first course was a Sonoma dry aged jack cheese with a crispy cheese cracker dribbled with a savory tomato chutney. It was paired with Thornton’s rich Crème De Cocoa, which reminded me of a creamy after-dinner drink, like Bailey’s, although I liked this better because it was lighter and more mellow since it is made with red wine rather than whiskey. This was a surprising combination to me but absolutely delicious. The cheese and the creamy drink really enhanced each other.
Next we were treated to a rosy slice of duck breast that had been soaked in a brine and then smoked over cherry wood to a nice medium rare. A unique accompanying sauce was highlighted with kumquats and cinnamon. This was all served with the Chocolate Lovers Wine, an intense black cherry wine with strong hints of dark chocolate. Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this pairing worked. I think this wine would go well with any rich meat dish.
Keeping the surprises going, Chef Pickell next served us tender braised Oaxacan beef short ribs, with molé sauce and crispy polenta, sprinkled with Ancho powder. This savory dish was matched with Coco Rosso, a deep chocolate and cherry blend, with a lovely sweet bouquet, that enhanced the rich flavor of the ribs—another ideal match.
As a final course, we were treated to a coconut macaroon torte served with a luscious white chocolate Grand Mariner crème. (Now you must be salivating.) What could make this dish more wonderful? A bright ruby Chocolate Strawberry wine that was full of fruit and strawberry aromas, yet on the palate had a mild chocolate taste that was only slightly sweet and did not overpower the delicious dessert
When asked why Thornton decided to venture into these chocolate wines, owner Steve Thornton said, “Our customers let us know they were looking for some wines that were sweeter and very easy to drink.”
Winemaker, David Vegari, added, “I’m the antithesis of a wine snob. I think anyone who is attracted to these kinds of wine should savor them and enjoy them. At a recent industry-wide trade show, Chocolate wines were hot because of their growing market appeal.”
All these wines were sourced by Thornton from the state of Washington. They taste best when chilled slightly and might even be nice if served on the rocks. They all have about 14 percent alcoholic content.
Bottles of each of these wines are available for $16 in the gift shop at Thornton Winery. You can also taste them in Thornton’s Café Champagne, where tastings are $15 each and they can be enjoyed along with some of the extraordinary foods we tasted and other wonderful dishes from Chef Pickell.
Thornton Winery is open every day of the week and is located at 32575 Rancho California Road, Temecula. For more information, call 951-699-0099.