Valentine's Day means chocolate. Seriously. Of all the days to bring it, this is the one when it is absolutely necessary. In the past I've run recipes by top chefs and from my own kitchen, wine-matching tips, and the obvious, foolproof advice to buy the best truffles you can find.
This year I am advocating grazing. As I look over my best-of tasting notes, I am finding a lot of flavored bars from solid producers. Some push the flavor envelope; others are soft pitches, perfectly rendered. When I taste chocolate with my family, I pull a bunch of bars out and break them up, and we go through them slowly. What's the worst that can happen? If you don't like the rose hip and white chocolate, move on. C'mon, it's still chocolate. The worst Champagne you ever had was still Champagne, right?
If you're daunted by a stack of bars take small pieces, but it's Valentine's Day; live a little.
I know it isn't cool in this era of cacao-percentage machismo, but in the interest of pleasing any and every taste, you should have a white chocolate. Compartés in Los Angeles makes good ones, emphasizing the tropical notes white is capable of supplying. Its Blonde Bombshell (compartes.com; $9.95 for 3 ounces) adds butterscotch, which has just enough edge to help cut the fatty chocolate. The company is run by a young guy named Jonathan Grahm, who to my taste deftly balances invention and quality.
Next I am going to bridge to the darker, more full-flavor chocolates with lighter, somewhat sweet and nutty milk chocolate. Peanuts are a powerful childhood draw for me, but given a choice, I'd take hazelnut. One standout is Guido Gobino's Giandujotto (buonitalia.com; $20.35 for 150 grams). This is a northern Italian candy in which the nuts are ground to a paste before being incorporated into the chocolate. The goal is tiny particle size for integrated flavor and creamy texture. It's a favorite candy of mine, and I have never had better than Guido Gobino. Darker, but not by much, is the Noir Nougatine (chocosphere.com; part of the "Panache" box, $11 for 4 ounces) from nearly 30-year-old Belgian producer Dolfin, which aimed to shake up what it considered a conservative local scene. The confection binds a subtly nutty crunch into soft dark chocolate.
Savory chocolate is a bit of a misnomer, since the results in most cases, at least the palatable ones, are still confections. But the point is to play against sweetness rather than boost it. Moonstruck, in Portland, Ore., has a new Savory Collection (moonstruckchocolate.com; $20 for 3 ounces) that satisfies both sides. A white chocolate mushroom is filled with a tomato-and-basil-flavored ganache. Sounds odd, but really it just gives a nice vegetal kick. Likewise porcini and chile bacon in dark ganache, which has a dark, meaty flavor with some trailing heat on the finish.
While it is better known for smoked fish (and caviar, of course), Parisian grande dame Petrossian also makes excellent candy. One stands out: a smoked truffle that has a thin, snappy coating and a rich, smoky ganache (petrossian.com; part of the "1920s" box, $60 for 5 ounces). It's one of those flavors that really penetrates your palate, so if you don't like the sound of it, stay away. If you do, prepare yourself for a great piece of chocolate, and maybe have a finger or two of Scotch ready to chase it.
Another one that had me thinking of the Hebrides was the Omnom Dark Milk and Burned Sugar (omnomchocolate.com; $11 for 2 ounces). It starts out almost buttery, with a buttermilk tang, but then the dark sugar comes through, turning it lightly smoky and savory. Omnom is based in Iceland. And while I have sometimes found the flavors of the bars inconsistent, they are consistently very good. The first time I had this one, it was smokier, but I won't say it was better. This is a producer to watch.
There are two ways to come down from this savory plateau. One is to do the closest thing to brushing your teeth without reaching for the Colgate. I love mint and chocolate, but sometimes the herb is too much, and almost has a burn to it. The Chocolate Conspiracy's Mint Chip bar (eatchocolateconspiracy.com, $9 for 2 ounces) has pretty, refreshing mint flavor, and cracked nibs—crunchy raw cocoa—for a little texture. Founder A.J. Wentworth is a nutritionist and vegan who got bitten by the chocolate bug. I consider him justification for excess.
The other way to go is to push away from savory without going too sweet. Charles Chocolates is a San Francisco producer with a range of filled chocolates and bars. A nice segue from the above savories is the Salty-Sweet Pecan Cherry Bar (charleschocolates.com, $8 for 4 ounces). The salt livens the palate a bit while the cherry pushes through the darker flavors and sweetens without being cloying.
I recognize that the day demands sparkling wine. Although dry versions tend not to work well with chocolate, aside from the bubbles' palate-cleansing effects, a sparkler, like chocolate, is an event all by itself. If that's what you want, go for it. However, I recently had a surprising breakthrough. I have found that higher alcohol can work with the strong flavors in chocolate, but that spirits too often run roughshod. I happened to have some Pineau des Charentes after tasting some chocolate. It's a somewhat obscure aperitif (or digestif—here the distinction is narrow) from Cognac, made from fresh wine and distilled spirit. Barrel age varies; look for one with a couple of years to give it heft. I found the raisin notes keyed into the chocolate fruit, and the bright acid was refreshing. It approaches 20 percent alcohol, which is just about right for chocolate, and not so much that it'll spoil the rest of your evening.
Owen Dugan is features editor of Wine Spectator.