Why fight it? Nothing says Valentine's Day like chocolate. And with so many boutique producers delivering higher quality and more diversity than ever before, you can come up with a unique choice that offers all the personality of the one you love, whether you serve homemade cake, cookies, brownies or truffles, or give a gift of specialty chocolates, from single-origin varietals, to chocolates flavored with fruit, spices, sea salt or even cheese or bacon.
Furthermore, you don't have to forego wine because you're having something sweet. Just serve the dry Champagne earlier in the meal and, to cap it off, turn to one of the world's renowned sweet wines, whose flavors parallel those in fine chocolates.
To help you narrow down your options, we've gathered the expertise of Wine Spectator editors and contributors.
Rather than be indecisive with a mixed assortment, find out your sweetheart's taste preferences, so you can really make a strong impression. In essence, chocolate lovers fall into three families: those who go for nuts, those who love fruit (think chocolate-covered strawberries) and those who are chocolate purists, according to features editor Owen Dugan. For the latter, he says, skip the pure high-quality chocolate bars on this romantic day and opt for truffles, with their more seductive texture. As an added bonus, these not-too-sweet confections are excellent matches for sweet wines and after-dinner spirits and liqueurs.
Today, top chocolatiers provide plenty of options in each category. Below, Dugan recommends his top picks, which can be ordered online and also found in many fine-foods stores. (For more detail, see his article, Valentine's Day Done Right, in the Jan. 31-Feb. 28, 2009, issue.)
Really want to impress someone with your personal attention? Deliver a box of truffles handmade by yourself.
Truffles require few ingredients, but it's critical to start with great chocolate, says Wine Spectator columnist Sam Gugino, who provides more truffle tips in his column Chocolate Delights. The first step is to create the ganache that forms the thick, smooth, creamy center; if you're ambitious, you can infuse the ganache with other flavors, from Cognac to nuts. You don't need a mold; a human touch makes every truffle unique. Just keep them small, no more than 1 inch around. To add texture, cover the ganache with a thin layer of chocolate that hardens to a crisp shell. To finish, the truffle is traditionally dusted with cocoa powder, but you can leave them plain or roll them in powdered sugar, crushed nuts or shredded coconut for variety.
Be sure to store the truffles in an airtight container, notes Gugino. While truffles can be refrigerated for up to a month, he adds, some experts suggest that the chocolates are at their best kept unrefrigerated in a cool, dry spot and consumed within about a week. Below is Gugino's recipe:
• 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (50 percent to 70 percent cacao)
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• 1 cup cocoa powder
1. Finely chop or grate 9 ounces of the chocolate. Place the pieces in a large, heatproof bowl.
2. Bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan, but do not let it burn. Pour it over the chocolate immediately. Stir the mixture gently and constantly, until a smooth ganache is formed. Allow the mixture to cool and thicken at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
3. Transfer the ganache to a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch tip (or a resealable bag with a corner cut off). Pipe ganache onto baking sheets lined with wax paper to create pieces that are about 3/4 inches across. Avoid making air pockets. Place the sheets in the freezer.
4. Melt the remaining 3 ounces of chocolate in a small, heavy and dry pan over low heat. When the melted chocolate is just cool enough to handle, remove the ganache from the freezer.
5. Place the cocoa in a medium bowl. Smear some melted chocolate in one hand, pick up a ganache piece, and quickly roll it in that hand, coating the entire surface.
6. Place the piece in the bowl of cocoa, and toss briskly with a fork to lightly cover. Transfer the piece to a storage container. Repeat steps 5 and 6 with the remaining pieces. (Lay a sheet of wax paper between each layer of truffles in the container.)
Chocolates and chocolate-based desserts can be an exquisite match with wines, if you follow this guideline: Choose a wine that's sweeter than the dessert so the wine won't taste bitter or thin.
Harvey Steiman, who once spent an entire day trying chocolate and wine combinations in the name of research, says his favorite matches—and the most versatile—are rich, fortified wines such as sweet Sherries and Australian Muscats and Muscadelles (formerly called Tokays) that are made via the solera system of blending older and younger wines. These wines have a nutty character that mingles well with chocolate.
Also look for other fortified sweet wines that echo the flavors in the dessert, such as tawny Ports, with their nut and spice flavors, and Banyuls (made from Grenache) from France, which typically offer raspberry, cherry, plum, dried fruit and even chocolate notes. Vin Santo, an Italian wine made from dried grapes, also may proffer a profile of nuts, caramel, toffee, honey, brown sugar, spice or dried fruits.
For a different take, try light, fizzy wines and sweet rosés with bright fruit flavors, suggests Steiman. The low-alcohol Brachetto from Northern Italy makes a nice choice for Valentine's Day with its rose-petal aromas and strawberry flavors that pair well with chocolate-covered fruit. If the dessert focuses more on fruit than chocolate, sweet wines from white varieties, such as Sauternes and late-harvest Rieslings, are good options.
If you're not a fan of sweet wines, dry red wines can pair wonderfully with not-too-sweet chocolate desserts. Steiman recommends a youthful, fruity wine with plenty of berry, cherry or currant flavors, such as Zinfandels and young Syrahs, to create a match that evokes chocolate-covered cherries or fruit cream-filled chocolates. Very high-quality chocolate contains little sugar, needing just enough sweetness to balance the bitterness of the chocolate. While bittersweet chocolate can amplify the fruit flavors of a young red, sweeter chocolates will cut the richness, so look for one with at least 60 percent cacao and no more than 12 grams of sugar per serving.
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