Wine vs chocolate?
These two words, as the saying goes, are rarely seen together. Nevertheless, every year around Valentine's Day, it's a natural impulse to try to find some way to bring these two icons of the romantic season into a happy relationship.
I'm no different. Over years of eating and drinking wine and writing about it, I've tried quite a variety of combinations in hope of finding the Holy Wine-and-Chocolate Grail, but generally end up, as I did in a 2002 holiday season report, advising "Don't do it!
The advice I gave then still holds, a decade later: "The problem is not that a match is impossible, only that it's unlikely. As a general principle, the natural sweetness of sugar, fruit and other good things in the dessert course make wine - even sweet wine - taste sour in contrast. Even if you like wine and you also like dessert, I generally advise serving them separately. Enjoy dessert, then enjoy an after-dinner wine, but do these things in order, not at the same time."
But it's hard to accept defeat gracefully when victory would be so, well, sweet. Try a fortified wine, I advised; particularly a Tawny Port or the Grenache-based Banyuls or Maury of the French Pyrenees, which speak seductively to dark chocolate with their ripe raspberry aromas and tart, strong flavors.
The New York Times' wine columnist Eric Asimov drew a similar conclusion in a seasonal column this week, With Chocolate, Go for a Fortified Wine. Specifically, he calls for a sweeter-style Madeira, a Bual or a Malmsey, with salted caramels.
Basically, though, the conventional wisdom urges against trying this difficult match, and nothing had come along to persuade me otherwise. Until I dropped in on a pre-Valentine tasting at a neighborhood wine shop last week.
Erika Chavez-Graziano. owner of Cellar Door Chocolates, a fine Louisville artisan chocolatier, fashioned a half-dozen dark chocolate truffles with subtle, offbeat flavors designed to accompany modest yet interesting wines selected by John Johnson, owner of The Wine Rack, a top-notch wine shop in Louisville's Crescent Hill neighborhood.
Without further ado, let's move straight to my brief notes taken during the tasting. They reveal quite a few happy surprises pairing chocolates with sparkling wines, fruity and not-too-tannic Syrah-based reds, and Port, offering a strong suggestion that, with careful pairing of wine styles and chocolates, wine and chocolate can indeed enjoy a sensuous fling. Can it lead to a long-term relationship? Only time will tell.
Mumm Napa Non-vintage Brut Prestige ($19.99) with a Cellar Door truffle scented with lavender. A hint of cocoa in the sparkling wine, perhaps signaling Pinot Noir in the blend, works amiably with the chocolate; the tart bubbles in the wine cut through the sweet, palate-coating dark chocolate, and the subtle touch of lavender in the candy adds a dimension of flavor subtlety.
Banfi Rosa Regale non-vintage Brachetto d'Acqui ($12.99 for a half-bottle, $21.99 for a full bottle) with a Cellar Door prickly-pear truffle. The pink Italian fizz offers a distinct rose petal aroma over red-berry fruit; it's sweet but not cloying. Dark chocolate - with subtle sweet edible cactus bits in the filling - smooths out the wine and makes it seem much more luxurious in texture and flavor.
Edna Valley Vineyard 2009 San Luis Obispo County Syrah ($10.99) with a Cellar Door truffle with an exotic filling with atcha (green tea powder). This big 'n' frooty Central Coast Syrah carries a load of bright fruit in a rich, big Central Coast red. The rich chocolate seems to dry out the wine, and its palate-coating character cools the big wine's heat, making the wine more accessible for me.
Cline 2011 "Cashmere" California Red Blend ($13.99) with a Cellar Door truffle stuffed with crumbled potato chips. The wine, a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah, offers a ripe cherry-berry scent, and it's rather dry with a touch of tannin. Again, the rich chocolate coats the palate and seems to smooth out the wine.
Porto Kopke NV ($17.99) with a Cellar Door truffle loaded with the spice turmeric. Sadly, the wine was afflicted with cork "taint," making judgement difficult. The musty aroma left little to taste but high alcohol, and in this unfortunate combination the wine simply tasted harsh against the truffle.
Porto Kopke 2012 bottled 10 Year Old Tawny ($17.99/$32.99) with a Cellar Door cream-cheese truffle. The wine is pale red in color, walnutty and powerful. The truffle was delicious, but the match, oddly, didn't knock my socks off. Again, the high alcoholic content in the wine seemed to show as harsh against the sweet chocolate, an outcome that goes against my usual advice. More research is needed, and I'm the man to do it!
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