Valentine's Day: Romance, flowers, wine, and best of all ... the world's tastiest, creamiest aphrodisiac: chocolate. I'm not talking about the leftover Halloween stash cached in the PMS/diet crash/sin drawer. I'm talking about the rich, pure, adult flavor of well-made milk, semi or bittersweet chocolate. Adult chocolate, savored nakedly without the distraction of cookies or cakes, deserves a proper lubricating wine partner, especially since V-Day falls on date-night this year.
Like wine, chocolate is labor intensive. Cocoa pods require a tropical climate and – like grapevines – a patient grower must wait three to five years before a tree bears fruit. Hand-harvested, the pods wear a coconut-tough outer shell that must be shattered with a hammer. Ensconced inside are 20 to 50 cream-colored beans and after painstakingly fermenting, roasting and grinding them, cocoa is born. Four hundred beans make one pound of luscious chocolate, created by adding fat and sugar to the cocoa solids.
Milk, semi or bittersweet chocolates are variations of how much cocoa solids they contain. White chocolate has no cocoa, so many countries don't consider it chocolate at all. Frankly, I don't either. It's like phone sex – not the real thing. I liken milk chocolate, with 10-20 percent cocoa solids, to the missionary position – plain and simple but still satisfying. To pair a wine with it, generally the wine's sweetness should equal if not surpass the chocolate's sweetness. Otherwise, the acidity and/or tannins take over and the combo becomes a bitter divorced couple in court. One perfect vinous fit for milk chocolate is Italian Moscato, a slightly sweet, mildly sparkling wine. Or swig a fruity riesling or ruby port.
Semisweet – in the 40-62 percent cocoa range and what you'll find in most chocolate chip cookies – is for the slightly more adventurous. Lighter-flavored chocolate should be served with a lighter-bodied wine like ripe, lively merlot or a fruit-forward, juicy pinot noir.
But robust (and heart-healthy) bittersweet chocolate, from 60-90 percent cocoa solids, is more like reading the stories in Penthouse Forum, perhaps a bit powerful for prudish tastebuds, but you'll never forget the experience. The sharp bite of bittersweet chocolate can thrash a weak wine, so match it with something equally as brawny. It can make magic with high-octane zinfandel or petite sirah, either table or late harvest versions. Or if your chocolate has a roasted quality, like those from the Dominican Republic, look for varietals that display that same characteristic like cabernet sauvignon or syrah. But pair carefully, this chocolate can whip your tastebuds like your momma never did.
Stanley Lambert Choc-o-Bloc South Australia From an Australian and American family partnership emerges a 5-year-old tawny port infused with melted chocolate. This drink will suffice for both dessert and wine. Tastes like a liquid tootsie roll laced with dark roasted coffee and caramel. Delicious, even for non-port-lovers. SW, HS, S. $35 (750-ml). 4.5 stars.
Dashe 2006 Late Harvest Zinfandel Dry Creek (California) This family-owned boutique winery doesn't make much of this truly remarkable wine (586 cases) but it's worth the effort to find it. Chocolatey, with rich blueberry-pie-filling flavors and dried cherry. You'd think it would be cloyingly sweet with this flavor acticity but it's kept in check with a refreshing acidity. SW, HS, S, T. $25 (375-ml). 4.5 stars.
Warre Ottima 10-year Tawny Port (Portugal) From one of the oldest port houses in existence comes a relatively affordable port. Lighter in style (but not in flavor) than many other tawnies, it's raisiny with toasted hazelnuts, sweet toffee and a hint of pine. SW, HS, S. $26 (500-ml). 4 stars.
Candoni Moscato d'Italia Terre di Chieti Many Moscatos come from the Asti region but this one originates from the Chieti province in Abruzzo. Loaded with peaches, tangerine and honey, this sweet sparkler satisfies a craving but also pairs well with Asian food. SH, HS. $10 (750-ml). 3.5 stars.
Sweet (SW), Hypersensitive (HS), Sensitive (S) and Tolerant (T). Find out your tasting profile at budometer.com.
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