Picking the Perfect Wine for Valentine's Day
It seems like a Valentine's Day match made in heaven: a bottle of vintage cabernet sauvignon and a box of dark Belgian chocolate.
But combine those two tastes on John Scharffenberger's tongue, and "it's a train wreck," he complains of the puckering collision of the red wine's oaky tannins and the similarly bitter overtones in dark chocolate. "You're going to ruin both of them."
Scharffenberger should know. A winemaker turned chocolatier who cofounded San Francisco's famed Scharffen Berger chocolates, he has spent much of his food career trying to perfect their highly complex smells and tastes.
Unlike most foods, which exhibit from 200 to 300 different gustatory qualities, he says red wine and chocolate each have as many as 900 flavor components, "which makes them much trickier to match." A prime example: dry reds and bittersweet chocolates, which tend to bring out the sour in each other.
The key, say food and wine experts, is to find the right mix of contrasts (sweet vs. bitter) and similarities (nutty or fruity flavors, for example). A good rule of thumb is to make sure the sugar content in the wine you choose is at least as high as it is in the chocolate you pick, which will ensure the wine doesn't taste dull or flat. Then try to match the flavors they have in common.
Take, for example, pairing a dark chocolate with a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella from Italy. (See this selection and other Valentine's Day picks from some of the nation's top wine buyers and bloggers.)
Made from grapes that are partly dried before they're fermenteddramatically concentrating their sugar content"it has just enough sugar to contrast perfectly with chocolate made from 70 percent cacao beans," explains Joshua Wesson, coauthor of Red Wine With Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine With Food. Even better, pick out a chocolate that has raisins mixed in, "because then you've also got a wonderful complement to the raisin flavors in the wine."
Similarly, Scharffenberger likes to mix bittersweet chocolate with a glass of Warre's Otima Tawny Port, a sweet-but-not-too-sweet dessert wine whose nutty overtones also go well with, say, chocolate-covered walnuts.
Not that wine and chocolate need always meld perfectly in the mouth. Just like a glass of milk can take the edge off a chocolate-chip cookie, the effervescence of a good bottle of champagne or sparkling wine can be an ideal palate cleanser. "It resets your tasting apparatus," says Scharffenberger. "We like to call it the perfect intercourse beverage because it goes perfectly between each course."
Champagne certainly works for Francois Payard. That is, as long as it's champagne and white chocolate. "That's a lovely combination because the dryness of the champagne complements the fat in the cocoa butter," says Payard, the renowned French pastry chef whose New York restaurant will be awash in chocolate and champagne on Valentine's Day.
For darker chocolate-and-wine matches, he prefers pink varieties, such as Champagne Billetcart-Salmon, which unlike white champagne has just enough sweetness to avoid a puckerfest.
Other experts suggest red sparkling wines, such as Italy's Banfi Rosa Regale. That's what the wine stewards at Pennsylvania's Hotel Hershey recently poured in between courses of chocolate buckwheat blini and caviar, warm cocoa-seared scallops and beef tenderloin rubbed in coffee and cocoa at his annual Chocolate Dinner Extraordinaire.
"I've served it to everyone from snotty sommeliers to steel workers, and they've all loved it," says Karl McCall, beverage manager at its sister hotel, Hershey Lodge. "It pairs amazingly well with chocolate-covered strawberries."
A match made in heaven, indeed.
More on Wines:
• Uncork the Lowest Prices (Dec. 11, 2006)
• Great Wine Buys: An Expert's Picks (Dec. 1, 2006)