Chocolate and wine. Could there be a more classic Valentine Day's pairing? There's one small problem: "The flavors of [dark] chocolate and wine aren't always that compatible," as a Food and Wine article summarized. Sure, there's that tannins on tannins thing, a double hit of bitter acidity in the chocolate and wine. And we've all heard the sommelier lectures that bittersweet chocolate should be tamed in a dish, like a mole sauce or chocolate mousse. But on Valentine's Day, we want pure, unadulterated chocolate.
Besides, aren't some of the best pairings in life, wine and otherwise, the most unexpected ones that those perfectly balanced PB&J sorts never thought would work? As Vineyard 29 winemaker Keith Emerson told us, "I would never say no to a great piece of chocolate, and I would most certainly never pass up a glass of Champagne. Two rights definitely don't equal a wrong." Precisely the reason we bypassed sommeliers and went straight to the local chefs of the wine world -- California winemakers -- for their Valentine's chocolate pairing opinions.
The Question: What wines would you recommend with chocolate? Straight up, bittersweet chocolate in bar form. No cheating with cooking tweaks/turning the chocolate into main courses or desserts.
Best classic wine-dark chocolate pairing:
"Who doesn't love chocolate and sparkling wine?!," asks Eileen Crane, founding winemaker of Domaine Carneros in Napa -- she prefers Brut Rosé. Crane also adds that from her home "cook and winemaker's perspective, the great thing about dark chocolate is that it is extremely versatile [in dishes] and has the ability to pair with a variety of wines... like Cabernet Sauvignon (Sequoia Grove is a my personal favorite) or Port."
Best nontraditional pairing:
"The varietals or wines I would pair with dark chocolate would be rich, fruit-forward California Malbecs (such as Fritz Underground Winery's Estate Malbec) and Australian Sparkling Shiraz," says Brad Longton, Winemaker at Lost Canyon Winery in the Russian River Valley. "A good one is Barossa Valley Estate E & E Black Pepper Sparkling Shiraz."
Best pairing for solitary chocolate enjoyment:
"One of the most amazing combinations that I have had recently is very dark chocolate and Petite Sirah," says Joel Peterson, Founding Winemaker of Sonoma's Ravenswood Winery. "The Petite Sirah brought out the dark cherry like tones in the chocolate, and the chocolate made the Petite Sirah seem softer, rounder, richer and fruitier. Fruitier, full body reds tend to go better with chocolate than lean, high acid reds."
Best advice for avoiding too mild (or aggressive) a date night:
"The chocolate has to be very dark with a very high percentage of cacao," says Bernard Portet of Napa-based Heritance Wines. "The creaminess of a lighter [milk] chocolate tends to absorb, rather than compliment, the wine and its flavors. (I do not think that milk chocolate pairs well at all with red wines.)" What Portet does like: "I tend to prefer fairly ripe and fleshy wines with dark chocolate (Cabernet or Merlot). If a wine has slightly too much apparent acidity, the chocolate will taste dryer, more angular and more aggressive."
Best advice for any food-wine pairings, any day of the week:
"Go for it!," says Chris Leamy of Terra d'Oro in Plymouth. "If you like IPA, big Cabs, powerful Zins, jump in. You don't always need the net of 'balance' to enjoy a flavor combination. Will it be tannic? Yes. Bitter? Most definitely. Delicious? That's up to you. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You can always have a glass of Port or Port-style wine standing by... the safe, sane way to balance the tannin and bitterness of the chocolate with sweetness."
Good "safe" Port advice for the office, certainly. But on Valentine's Day, and any other night of the week, Leamy's riskier strategy sounds like a hell of a lot more fun.
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More in our Valentine's Day Countdown series: Ococoa's Chocolate Nut Butter Cups
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