This article appears in the Jan. 31 - Feb. 28, 2010 issue of Wine Spectator, on newsstands now.
Most people take their wine and their chocolate separately. And for good reason: They can be a tough match.
Chocolate is a monster. It pastes itself onto your palate, and dark versions are usually tannic, full-bodied and loaded with deep flavors. Milk chocolate is even more persistent in texture, though the flavors are usually milder and considerably sweeter.
But it's Valentine's Day. You want to have chocolate, and you want to have wine. I'm here to tell you that with a little planning, they can help to boost the sensual, romantic side of the holiday.
So what to do? First, avoid the recent chocolate releases that are produced to match with wine. They're not very good by themselves, so who cares if they're better with wine? (They're not.) Would you want a wine that was made specifically to drink with a candy Easter egg?
Get good chocolate, really good chocolate, preferably pretty dark. Doing research for this story I focused on dark chocolate with cacao levels of 60 percent and up (with a handful of milks thrown in). That's the sweet spot.
Then focus on the wine. The first requirement is that it must be sweet. Second, it has to have considerable acidity and/or alcohol. That's a pretty big group.
Red table wine with chocolate is one accepted match. If you have a red that is sweet (or at least leaning heavily in the fruit direction) and has hefty alcohol, it can work. Think extracted Shiraz and jammy Zins, which will usually add fruit to the dark chocolate. But watch out for herbaceous flavors-what makes wine good with lamb will likely have an adverse effect with chocolate.
Probably the most popular red with chocolate is Port. In terms of alcohol and sweetness, it goes a step further than table wine. The deep red fruit in the Port reaches into the chocolate and pulls out more fruit. If your significant other always orders chocolate desserts that feature raspberry or cherry, get a good Port and your work is done.
Overall, my favorite wines for chocolate are mostly golden brown, instead of deep red. I'm talking raisins instead of grape jelly. I keep returning to wines made from dried grapes-Vin Santo works well because it is raisiny but has some depth and a nice toffee finish-or sweet wines from the solera system. The latter brings out a nutty character, and often has the depth of aging coupled with the vitality and acidity of younger wines. Think of PX and sweet Madeiras especially, and liquor Tokays from Australia.
If you finished the wine with dinner, and want to move on to something bolder, you might look to spirits. In the interest of keeping things simple, I recommend aged rum. Most of these are basically distillate of molasses aged in Bourbon barrels. They remain sweet, but take on toast and gain in complexity over time. The alcohol is less pronounced than in a lot of spirits; it cleans the palate without taking over. Plus, like chocolate it is tropical, both in origin and character.
If you've had enough alcohol by the time you finish dinner, by all means brew some oolong tea. Look for roasted varieties. This tea doesn't meet my sweetness requirement for pairings, but it can be a powerhouse in other respects. Plus, the warming sensation is not a bad thing, especially on this of all holidays.