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Q&A: Like Wine, Like Chocolate

Chocophile Clay Gordon wants you to appreciate chocolate the same way you would a fine wine. For seven years, the Larchmont (N.Y.) resident has been giving seminars on how to distinguish among the multitude of flavors in chocolate. He worked in computer graphics before a 1994 business trip to Cannes sparked an interest in gourmet chocolate ( BusinessWeek Staff Editor Elizabeth Woyke recently spoke with him about some of the finer points of chocolate.

Do people approach chocolate differently than they approach wine?

Yes. Wine and even vinegar and olive oil are analyzed with an adult palate. But most people have been eating chocolate since childhood. Their taste preferences are often set early on by special memories they have. For instance, Hershey's (HSY) milk chocolate has a sour-milk flavor. A lot of its popularity comes from its association with childhood.

What do you analyze during your chocolate tastings?

There's the texture: Is it creamy, chalky, crumbly, or dry? The smell can be sweet, vanilla-y, or resemble [the scent of] a newly sharpened pencil. The taste could be fruity, nutty, roasty, caramel-like, or have hints of licorice. We also consider where you're tasting the chocolate. If you taste it high in your mouth and nose, it's probably an aromatic. Then there's the finish: How long does the flavor stay in your mouth?

What chocolates do you like?

I like chocolate that engages all the senses...that has a "rustic" or less refined texture. Bonnat's Hacienda El Rosario is a good example. Felchlin's Cru Sauvage, made from beans harvested in Bolivia, is a great new flavor. It's light and kind of citrus-y without acidity, with all of the aromas high in the mouth and in the nose. I also like many milk chocolates, especially those with high cocoa content [45% or above]. They combine some of the intensity of a good semisweet or bittersweet chocolate with richness and creaminess.

How would you rate familiar brands?

Mass-market chocolate like Nestl? (NSRGY), Cadbury (CSG), Russell Stover, and Whitman's tends to be overpoweringly sweet with primary flavors of caramel or artificial vanilla. They are designed to have a long shelf life, so milk gets replaced with other ingredients and sugar gets added in part because it is a preservative. Ferrero Rocher, Perugina, and Godiva are really better known for their confections (the fillings) than their chocolate bars. Scharffen Berger, acquired by Hershey in July, makes chocolate with a strong red fruit flavor, like plums or cherries.

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