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Raising the Bar on Chocolate

Specialty chocolatiers are introducing darker and not-so-sweet 'varietal' and 'estate' products, hoping profits will flow like wine.

March 16, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Swishing the smooth, dark blend around in his mouth, Gary Guittard searches for the right words. "Astringent," he decides, "with some floral notes."

Zinfandel? Or maybe Merlot?

No, chocolate. It's a semisweet made from Ecuadorean cocoa beans, just one of the new "varietal" and "estate" chocolates hitting the market.

Designed to attract would-be connoisseurs, these high-end chocolate bars are made from different varieties of cocoa beans grown on plantations around the world, from Venezuela to Trinidad to Madagascar.

Just as different varieties of grapes bring their flavors to wine, Guittard and other chocolatiers insist, the type and terroir of certain cocoa beans bring subtle but distinct flavors to the chocolate they produce.

Venezuelan beans are spicy and nutty. Ecuadoreans have the floral aroma of the rain forest.

Chocolate lovers, they're betting, like wine lovers, will be willing to shell out more for a little taste of what they believe to be the finest the world has to offer. Like $3 to $7 for a 3-to-4-ounce bar.

"If people hear something is the strongest in the world, they want to taste it and say they like it," says Guittard, president of Guittard Chocolate Co. in Burlingame, Calif. Right or wrong, he says, "it's got snob appeal."

Some believe these so-called origin bars and the flowery language used to describe them is just marketing hype, a ploy to make people spend more money on chocolate at a time when consumption appears ready to level off in the U.S.

But if these cocoa pioneers have their way, the labels on chocolate bars soon could be as crowded as wine labels--with descriptions of special blends of beans, information about where the beans are grown, cocoa percentages and, in some cases, even vintages so people can nibble on a "good year." Chocolate shops could more closely resemble Starbucks, with people choosing the blend of their beans as well as the fillings.

And more Americans would choose chocolate to fit their mood rather than simply look for "something sweet."

That's still a long shot. Today, varietal chocolate is still very much in its infancy, catching the fancy mainly of pastry chefs and foodies looking for something new and exciting.

But growing sales of these bars at gourmet shops such as Dean & DeLuca, at supermarkets such as Andronico's and Bristol Farms and online could be an indication that American tastes are changing.

"We've seen a big increase in gourmet or specialty chocolates . . . particularly in the dark, semisweet and 70% cocoa stuff, versus the American milk chocolate," says Kevin Davis, president of Bristol Farms. "People are fine-tuning their taste for chocolate."

No one knows exactly how sales are progressing because most of the premium chocolate makers and confectioners are private companies that don't release sales figures.

But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that darker, not-so-sweet chocolate is making inroads on America's beloved milk chocolate. That's similar to how more complex, varietal wines began moving in on sweet carafe wine in the U.S. in the 1980s.

Consumers "have experienced better olive oil, coffee and wine in recent years," says Pierrick Chouard, who heads Vintage Chocolates, an Elizabeth, N.J.-based importer of Michel Cluizel varietal chocolates from France. "Maybe they are finding out that the flavor of the food is not linked to a [manufacturer] in Switzerland but to the place that it is grown."

Reviews in Wine Spectator and other publications describe these chocolates in the same rhapsodic terms they would a California Cabernet or a French Bordeaux. Venezuelan chocolate is "silky and smooth with hints of black and red fruits," says Wine Spectator reviewer Sam Gugino. Sumatran-bean chocolate, he says, has a "nice balance of cream, earth and fruit, though it finishes a bit short."

Executives at specialty chocolate enterprises naturally encourage these wine-like comparisons.

"We are trying to be the Chateau Mouton Rothschild of chocolate," says Bernard DeClos, who imports varietal chocolate from French manufacturer Valrhona.

As far as big companies go, only Godiva, the large chocolate company owned by Campbell Soup Co., appears to be considering a line of varietal chocolates in the U.S. Hershey Foods Corp. and Nestle, the two giants in American chocolate, are sticking to the proven mass market.

Godiva officials say they are weighing whether to take a chance on pure dark bars or to fill them with something sweet, such as a ganache or praline cream.

"We are trying to understand the role of origins," says Michael Simon, Godiva Chocolatier's vice president of marketing. "We want products that have a wide breadth of appeal for our consumers."

At the same time, consumers have begun demanding a broader range of chocolate to choose from, whether it's more levels of bittersweet chocolate or a new "dark milk" chocolate.

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