Inaugurating Valrhona’s cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working with Valrhona, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of fine chocolate, on the inauguration of their Loma Sotavento cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic. It was an important occasion for Valrhona. The company had invited some of its leading customers, plus a number of international journalists, to see where the cocoa is grown from which it produces some of its finest chocolate. A team of Valrhona experts was on hand to explain the intricacies of sourcing and producing top quality beans.

Jean-Paul Hevin and myslef, Juliet Bray

Jean-Paul Hevin and myself, Juliet Bray

For me, it was a valuable opportunity to get to know another leading cocoa-producing country, following on from my projects in Peru and Ecuador.  A visit to this Caribbean nation of 10 million enabled me to learn about another prestigious cocoa origin.

Map of Dominican Republic

Arriving on the island after the long flight from Paris, I am quickly revived by the sunlight and the sparkling blue of the Caribbean as swinging bachata music accompanies me on the taxi ride into Santo Domingo. Walking through the cobbled streets of the city’s historic centre, I instantly recognise the graceful buildings of the island’s Spanish colonial past.

Old town of Santo Domingo

The Dominican Republic occupies two thirds of the island of Hispaniola, or La Española, as it was dubbed by Christopher Columbus when he touched land there on his first voyage of discovery in 1492. Its capital, Santo Domingo, was the first Spanish colony in the New World, remaining under Spanish rule for more than 300 years.

map-dominican-republicPlaza Colon, Santo Domingo

Cocoa was introduced into the island by its Spanish colonisers at the beginning of the 17th century. Today, the Dominican Republic is the world’s largest producer of organic cocoa, known for its fine fruity flavours. Along with sugar, coffee and tobacco, cocoa is one of its main agricultural exports. There could scarcely be a better location to showcase fine chocolate at its source.

Dominican cocoa

Dominican Cocoa

Valrhona’s involvement with the Dominican Republic began about a decade ago. In its  constant search for new sources of exceptionally flavoured chocolate, the French chocolate manufacturer was attracted by the island’s tradition of cocoa cultivation, its rich and fertile soil and its favorable geographical and climatic conditions. Exposure to sea winds helps to protect cocoa crops from disease, an important advantage considering that 30% to 50% of global cocoa production is lost to diseases and pests.

Dominican coastal region

Ironically, nonetheless, quality has not always been the hallmark of Dominican cocoa. For years, cocoa was exported as a cheap commodity, mainly destined for mass-market manufacturers in the United States.

unfermented cocoa

So-called Sánchez cocoa beans, after the name of the port in the island’s main northeastern cocoa-growing area from which they were exported, were shipped without going through fermentation for transformation into butter and cocoa powder on arrival in the U.S. For chocolate purists, that’s sacrilege. Careful fermentation of the beans is one of the keys to producing fine chocolate.

Fermentation process

Teaming up with a local family-owned cocoa producer, Rizek Cacao, Valrhona embarked on a search for quality cocoa, based on strict guidelines for fermentation and drying that were designed to obtain beans that met its exacting standards for quality and flavour.

Rizek Cacao

In 2006, its efforts were crowned with the launch of its dark Taïnori chocolate, named in honour of the Taino people, the island’s indigenous pre-Colombian inhabitants. Combining yellow fruit aromas with a lingering nutty flavour reminiscent of freshly baked bread, this single origin chocolate is one of Valrhona’s Grand Crus range.

Tainori BtoB packTainori, Valrhona Chocolate

But the story did not end there. To get even closer to the source of its chocolate and the savoir-faire of cocoa cultivation, Valrhona decided to buy its own plantation. Its choice fell on Loma Sotavento, a plantation extending over 20 hectares on a hilltop as its name in Spanish indicates – “the hill under the wind” —  a dozen kilometres from the ocean in the northeastern part of the island.


Loma Sotavento Cocoa Plantation

Loma Sotavento’s luscious and idyllic ecosystem combines biodiversity and shade. Its cocoa trees grow amid citrus, coconut, plantain and sapote trees, an ideal combination for flourishing cocoa production. It is one of the most beautiful and well-maintained plantations that I have visited during my cocoa travels.

Loma Sotavento, Valrhona plantation

Farming is exclusively organic, using only natural compost.  It is from a small and exclusive batch of beans from Loma Sotavento that Valrhona makes its single-domain vintage chocolate, Loma Sotavento Millesime. Long on the palate, balanced and chocolaty, it is characterized by round and light ripe fruit notes that gently give way to a delicate touch of toasted aromas.

Millesime 2013 Loma Sotavento

As we welcome our guests to Loma Sotavento, emotion and fascination dominate the expressions on their faces. These are talented French and American chocolatiers and pastry chefs, leaders in their craft. For many, however, this is their first direct encounter with cacao on the farm.

Loma Sotavento, Valrhona

Jean Paul Hevin, Frédéric Cassel, Richard Sève, Luc Guillet

Jean Paul Hevin, Jean-Francois Dargein, Frédéric Cassel, Jean-Luc Grisot, Richard Sève, Luc Guillet, Francois Granger

Their first morning is spent learning from Valrhona and Rizek experts about the cultivation of high-quality cocoa.

As Benjamin Figarede, a member of the Valrhona team responsible for developing partnerships with cocoa growers, explains the importance of proper harvesting, our guests see how the cocoa pods are cut open with a thick short wooden stick that cracks the pod open, in a way that avoids damaging the beans. It is a meticulous task that demands full concentration.

Harvest cocoa workshopThe next workshop covers fermentation and drying, processes that are crucial for developing the chocolate flavours of the cocoa beans. Pierre Costet, a Valrhona expert in sensorial analysis and scientific cocoa research, shows us how widely the taste of chocolate can vary, depending on the duration of the beans’  fermentation.


We taste chocolate made with beans that have been fermented for only 2 – 3 days. It tastes bitter and astringent. By comparison, the chocolate made from beans that have been fermented for over five days has a more chocolaty taste, with fruity notes.

Fermentation process

Finally, Julien Desmedt, another member of the Valrhona sourcing team responsible for partnerships with the cocoa growers, invites our guests to plant their own trees. It has been raining, so it is rather a muddy experience, but despite the stickiness of the humid climate, I am astonished to see many of our guests planting their own baby cocoa tree, perhaps with a view to returning in a couple of years’ time to see them fully developed as a source of 100% traceable chocolate!

Planting a cocoa tree

US Pastry chef planting his tree

William Werner, Pastry Chef at Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco.

Lunch at Loma Sotavento, Valrhona

The day ends with a visit to a nearby local primary school, Los Indios, which has been renovated by Valrhona and Rizek for the children of local cocoa-growing families. The highlight is a carefully prepared merengue dance, followed by speeches from the local priest and the village mayor thanking Valrhona and Rizek for their generous support.

Escuela Los Indios, Dominican Republic

Merengue Dancing

Like the after-taste of a very fine chocolate, memories of all that I experienced continue swirling in my mind. Quality and ethics grow together and are the future of chocolate-making. As chocolate manufacturers search for quality beans, they increasingly work hand in hand with cocoa growers, sharing and acknowledging each other’s expertise.

Cocoa producers Dominican Republic

Through its long-term partnerships with cocoa growers, Valrhona demonstrates that quality based on ethical values is achievable.

Valrhona and Rizek cacao

Look out for its new Dominican origin Grand Cru milk chocolate, Bahibe Lactée, named after the Bayahibe Rose cactus, the Dominican Republic’s iconic national flower. At 46%, its high cocoa content gives it all the intense cocoa notes of dark chocolate. With a hint of dried fruit and a touch of citrus, this is a milk chocolate very different to any other that I have tasted.

Categories: Chocolatiers, Cocoa, Cocoa production, Cocoa Varieties, Dominican Republic, Plantations, Sensory, Valrhona

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16 replies

  1. I would LOVE to visit a real cocoa plantation, and Valrhona is top notch!

  2. Very nice Juliet. I was wondering where Loma Sotavento is located? Did you get a chance to visit Rizek’s Sendero de Cacao?

  3. Another interesting and great article!!! Thank you for sharing Juliet!!!

  4. Thank you for tipping me off that Vahlrona is making a single origin milk chocolate. It sounds incredible! I have got to get my hands on some.

  5. Un très beau article !!!

  6. j’adore tes articles, et puis qui sait peut etre qu’un jour tu ecriras un article sur mes plantations? …

  7. Juliet its always great to read and learn from your expierence about the “Food of the Gods”

    If you ever do decide to start up your own exclusive quality cocoa plantation I would be very interested
    in hearing from you.

    Looking forward to your next cocoa expierence.

  8. Reblogged this on pkirtika's Blog and commented:

  9. Juliet, I love how in-depth you get. I hope you are writing a book about this, b/c I fear so much of your lovely details are lost on the fast-paced, quick attention span audience the internet has turned so many of us into. You provide so many lovely details. Very interesting. Also – your post on the cocoa farmers is no longer available, but it was well done too! -Renee

  10. Felicidades Juliet Bray, hermoso y profesional artículo. Quizás conociste a mi mamá en tu visita a Rizek Cacao Co. Ella trabaja en la oficina desde 1975 se llama Elsa Concepción. Yo nací en 1976, te puedo decir que el esmero de Rizek por desarrollar un producto orgánico de primera calidad ha sido como una religión. El cacao en el pais viene siendo lo que para Cuba es el Tabaco “Habano Cigar” aunque hace tiempo los superamos en Cigarros Premium, jajaja any way interesante artículo. Mario Burgos. Connecticut

  11. hello Juliet, very enjoyable to read your articles! It is a great trend that even the very big names in chocolate decide to invest in plantations – they also need to now with the modern consumer demanding traceable products to verify a decent origin and cultivation, fair trade conditions etc. Here in Costa Rica the development is a little different as we are “re-claiming” the final product and make our own fine chocolate for export, thus leaving a greater part of the added value here in the country where the cacao grows – to us that is “more than fair” trade, trying to break down the old colonial pattern and division of labour. Please drop me a line if and when you come to Costa Rica – the Happiest Nation on Earth (not least due to chocolate I am sure!)

  12. hello juliet, I would like to visit the Loma Sotavento cacao farm. Do you remember the nearest town, or in what area on the North Coast it is located? Thanks for a great article 🙂

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