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Bearing gifts of wine and chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day? A little caution is advised

By Dave Buchanan

Even the most preoccupied among us find it difficult to escape this month’s multitude of same-breath references to wine and Valentine.

Of course, it’s only after taking the next step of uttering wine, Valentine and chocolate that the abyss opens and we find ourselves flying or falling.

Just as there’s considerable disagreement about the “romance” of winemaking from anyone who has spent seemingly-endless hours picking grapes or pressing those grapes or running hoses from tank to barrel, there’s some debate on whether wine and chocolate should be paired together, much less whether they should come together to highlight an ancient holiday.

Supposedly named after one or more of several early Christian martyrs, St. Valentine's Day got an early boost after English poet Geoffrey Chaucer tied the day to romantic love.

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate,” wrote Chaucer in 1382 in “Parliament of Foules.”

He might have known his “foules” but Chaucer, who wrote extensively on the battles of the heart, couldn’t foresee the mass marketing efforts arising from the possibilities of tying commerce to romantic love.

But since he also wrote, “No empty-handed man can lure a bird,” he likely would have approved of today’s efforts to impress someone with gifts of wine and chocolate.

Chocolate and wine seem to be a perfect match, but before you run out to splurge, remember not all matches are made in heaven.

The best advice is to experiment, preferably before you show up at the door bearing Magi-like gifts. Think of it as being similar to pairing food and wine, since there also you deal with multiple layers of fruit, bitterness (tannins), sweetness and acidity, and your goal is to let the highlights whisper, not dominate the conversation.

“The sweetness and bitterness and acid of chocolate tends to heighten the same characteristics in the wine,” says wine educator Jonathon Cristaldi in a column by Linnea Covington on the celebrate.today.com website.

The key here is the wine should be at least as sweet as the chocolate.

Covington writes that winemaker Chris Stamp of Lakewood Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region “has struggled” finding the right pairings for the Seneca Wine Trail’s chocolate and wine event.

“It took me a lot of long and hard searching to find these, but I have been surprised a few times that some things can go together,” he said.

Anyone sitting through a wine-and-chocolate tasting at local wine events can attest to the surprises, both pleasant and otherwise.

Just as chocolate varies (think of all the choices on the candy aisle), so do wines.

One general rule is lighter chocolates (think flavor, not color) pair better with fruitier, lighter bodied wines (Spanish sherries, Prosecco, pinot noir, merlot, riesling) while chocolates with higher cocoa content stand up better to full-bodied wines (pinot noir, merlot, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon).

The best dark chocolate match might be Italian passitos and Port and Port-style wines, although a personal preference is Banyuls, a fortified wine from southern France.

One more item to consider is matching or contrasting the flavor nuances present in wine and chocolate.

That contrast-and-match alchemy is why Parker Carlson of Carlson Vineyards in Palisade, Colo., dips the rims of wine glasses in semi-sweet chocolate or ties a semi-sweet dark-chocolate heart to bottles of his much-in-demand cherry wine. The desert-style wine balances its sweetness against the semi-sweet chocolate, accentuating the bright fruit of the wine and the intensity and fruit of the chocolate.

It also should be noted that chocolate with a higher cocoa content has more phenylethylamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes called the “molecule of love” since it appears when people fall in love.

There’s no word if wine actually enhances the appearance of this “chocolate amphetamine,” as it’s also been called, but it might be what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote, “If we sip the wine, we find dreams coming upon us out of the imminent night.”

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