A Sweetheart Diel That’s Better Than Chocolate

Caroline and Sylvain Diel lean into each other holding two wine glasses in the garden of their Nahe winegrowing estate
Caroline Diel (left) and Sylvain Taurisson-Diel (right) at Schlossgut Diel, Nahe/Germany. Photo credit: Steffen Henkel

What could be more romantic on Valentine’s Day than wine and chocolate? One popular myth, stemming from a time when white wine was only paired with fish, instructs that dry red wine and chocolate make an excellent pairing. And generations of lovers since have acquiesced, even while the rest of us are left scratching our heads (and tongues) in confusion.

There is here admittedly a grain of truth. If that pour is a fortified wine, harmonizing sweetness all around, then yes. With nearly all other dry reds, however, the affair is doomed to fail. And for good reason. Although the biochemical research is far from complete, it has established that wine and chocolate share certain polyphenols: organic compounds present not only in grapes, but also in oak barrels and cocoa beans. And a subset of these polyphenols, in this case tannins, when tasted together compound each other in notably biting and bitter ways. 

But romance thrives in unexpected places, and sometimes fairy tales need only be turned on their heads in order to come true. With apologies to the Brothers Grimm, our recounting opens not in a dark and lonely forest, but rather in the historic vaulted cellar of a German restaurant in the small Pfalz town of Wartenberg. 

At a seemingly rather prescient pairing event.

When he brings the chocolate… 

Valrhona was to provide the chocolate; Schlossgut Diel, the wine. It was by all accounts an unlikely setup for love. The 2007 pairing workshop was to be the last day of work for Sylvain Taurisson, a recently retired professional volleyball player and regional sales manager for the renowned French chocolate company. In coming to terms with the serious injury that had ended his athletic career the year prior, the Frenchman from Mantes La Jolie had made plans to bid adieu to Germany after three years and return to Paris. And then came a call from his boss: “He asked ‘can you please stay through the evening gala because Armin Diel just canceled and he’s sending his daughter instead.’” 

Taurisson (or [SPOILER ALERT] Taurisson-Diel, as he’s now known) agreed to attend with little to no interest in the dinner to follow. “I was being asked to miss a ski weekend with my friends,” said Taurisson-Diel, “I thought I’d be presenting with some clueless 18-year-old. And so I told him, no, do it yourself.” 

When the workshop opened, Taurisson launched into a detailed instruction about the processing of chocolate, about “conching with cocoa beans and all that comes with it,” he remembers, only to endure a series of engaged interruptions.  “There was a deep voice, a special voice, to my right constantly asking questions I couldn’t answer.” The identity of the commanding young woman made an unusual first impression. This, it seemed, was Caroline. Perhaps it is in his French nature to be stirred so, but he says despite himself it was compelling, love at first… listen?

And while he outwardly contested, as the day continued he was inwardly no less intrigued. By evening, he had asked the host for permission to stay for the gala dinner. Yet though he tried valiantly, he could not arrange for a seat near Ms. Diel. She was with her aunt; he was placed beside his boss. Even with little opportunity to speak with her, Taurisson-Diel was smitten. As Diel presented her wines to the audience, Taurisson-Diel awkwardly confided to his employer that he had two immediate problems: “One, I don’t want to quit anymore, and, two, I don’t know really that woman standing on stage, but she’s going to be my wife and that scares me.” 

Yet this is no standard fairy tale. At evening’s end, it was she who walked up to him and asked: “So, what do you think: do chocolate and wine go together?” He answered, he says, without hesitation: “Yes.”

… she brings the wine 

For chocolate to match well with wine, the balance of the pairing must be carefully considered: the style (including sugar content) and weight of both chocolate and wine calibrated; common or complementary flavors should be sought out; the quality of each element must be unconditionally exceptional. In other words, it has to be the right wine to complement the right chocolate. 

In the weeks leading up to that fateful fair, while Taurisson-Diel had been making preparations to leave Germany, Caroline Diel had been adjusting to a life recently resumed at her childhood home. In 2006 she rejoined her family’s estate following nearly a decade elsewhere: viticultural studies at Geisenheim and prestigious internships in California, South Africa, New Zealand, and especially France, including time at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Champagne Ruinart. “I originally wanted to go into gastronomy,” Diel said, “but after an internship in Bordeaux at Pichon-Lalande I realized that the wine industry had so many different facets that I had never experienced at home.”

That home is Burg Layen, an imposing castle with a mottled red stone turret rising high above the tiny Nahe town of Rümmelsheim. A small flag at the top marks the direction of the wind that seems to always blow through the cool valley. Our story here may indeed resemble a fairy tale, but Caroline has proven herself anything but a damsel in distress. Since taking over the 222-year-old estate, she has been named winemaker of the year by esteemed publications such as the FAZ, Falstaff, and Vinum. Under her stewardship, the range of wines has grown more nuanced and focused, more linear and precise. She is the very definition of can-do, more comfortable in boots than heels, and relishes getting her hands dirty, especially if it means helping you better understand the sites she is most proud of.

And there are plenty of those sites among the estate’s 25 hectares of sloping vineyards and wild ancient cliffs — some terraced, all stone — surrounding the castle. While slate predominates, there is also Rotliegend conglomerate, gravel and quartzite. “We have so many different soils that the wines all taste very, very different,” Diel says.

Caroline and Sylvain Diel kiss while holding two wine glasses in the garden of their Nahe winegrowing estate
photo credit: Steffen Henkel

And It’s a Diel  

Most fairy tales seem at least outwardly to promote a conservative view of the world. In those tales, often recorded for posterity in German but originally formulated in French, the men are farmers, hunters, or kings, often kindly but harried. The boys are clever and brave; the girls innocent and pristine; the stepmothers haggard, haranguing, and evil. 

Yet the classic fairy tale has also undergone a fair amount of critical reconsideration. Some have theorized that the earliest fairy tales, dating back to 17th-century France, were not only written by women but were in fact protests against societal constraints at the time. The Diel love story fits in here smoothly, the ur-fairytale in a modern dress.

Reflecting on the division of labor, Caroline admits that theirs is an upside-down version of the traditional arrangement. “I’m the one who handles the vineyards and cellar, while Sylvain takes care of the office, sales, hospitality, food, and family.” The couple and their three kids, ages ten, 11, and 13, took up full-time residence in the castle in 2017. In 2019, Taurisson-Diel became part owner. “I don’t employ Sylvain,” Diel says, “He owns shares in the winery and we do it properly. Together.” A new model for an old story, equal parts modern and timeless. 

Despite how well it works, there are, of course, discussions. “Sometimes wild, sometimes less so,” says Diel in the same unmistakable voice that caught Taurisson-Diel’s attention over a decade earlier. “Whether it’s work, children, or arguments, I always have the feeling that we complement each other. And that’s cool.”  

With Plenty of Sekt Appeal

Fairy tale settings often feature picturesque backdrops, and in this regard the Nahe fits like a glass slipper. It is also, notably, a young winegrowing region, at least in the political sense. “As it exists today, the Nahe has only been defined within its existing boundaries since 1971,” says Diel. Unlike some other regions, where the needs of modern commerce have consolidated power into the hands of a few major growers, the Nahe remains home to many small producers. Yet some of them boast very long histories, like Burg Layen, which the Diel family has transformed itself over the course of seven generations from a classic mixed farm into a pure winegrowing estate. 

Precisely because of the newness of the region, the famous heterogeneity of its soils, and the non-monolithic status of its winegrowing community, unconventional ideas have the space and freedom to thrive. “Personally, I think that sparkling wine and Pinot Noir do really well here,” says Diel. “But you need winemakers who are committed to it. You can’t just make sparkling wine from any wine. You have to take a different approach in the vineyard work from the start, think about it differently.” 

At a time when Sekt is on the rise, Diel’s have gained recognition for their finesse and elegance, modeled after their French counterparts and infused with that special Nahe spice and spirit. The wines are all made in the traditional method, and undergo extended lees aging up to 15 years. 

Which brings us back to wine and chocolate. Forget the reds; sparkling is the real insider’s secret. The texture of the bead and the crisp freshness of the wine can prove an excellent complement, especially the delicate red fruitiness of a good rosé. Sugar must, of course, always be accounted for. Yet for the Diels, with chocolate or without, sparkling wine is always the right choice. 

Is it destiny? Who can say. “I forgot the best part,” adds Taurisson-Diel. “When I first arrived in Germany, I couldn’t stop marveling at the historic landmarks and buildings in Wiesbaden. My then boss turned to me and said: ‘Mr. Taurisson, now you just need to find a woman with a castle and stay in Germany forever, right?’” It’s enough to make even a Valentine’s skeptic believe that contemporary stories really can have a happy ever after.

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