Valentine Wine

Your lover wants chocolate, you want wine. Can this relationship be saved in time for Valentine’s Day?

You won’t have to look far to find expert, well-meaning advice saying, yes, sure, no problem. Red wine — especially a dense zinfandel or petite sirah, even a good pinot noir — is a great match for chocolate, or so goes the conventional wisdom. I’m here to tell you, however, that’s baloney. I think red wine goes with chocolate like flip-flops go on a hockey rink: the combination usually proves embarrassing.

So instead of following the crowd, try pairing Valentine chocolate with a good port. New Hampshire state liquor stores usually have a variety of good ports on hand, and the full state wine list (from which you can order online) offers dozens of ports, including some high-end vintage bottles.

True port is a sweet dark wine fortified with aguardente (a grape spirit, though not brandy) that comes from Portugal, specifically the Duoro Valley. If “sweet” and “fortified” don’t seem to you like attractive descriptions for a wine, consider that production of port dates back at least to the 17th century, and across the centuries port makers have learned a very great deal about how to make delicious wine.

Several kinds of port cater to different tastes. Tawny port is aged in wooden barrels, often for decades, and tends to be on the sweet side. It’s usually served as a dessert wine. Ruby port is the most common port and is typically the cheapest; it is not aged in wood but in stainless steel tanks. Vintage port is the good stuff, made only in years that are declared “vintage” by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, the official body governing port production in Portugal, based on the quality of that year’s grapes. Vintage ports are typically aged for two years in wooden barrels, then further aged in the bottle for much longer, sometimes as long as 40 years, before they're released for sale. Indeed, vintage port more than 100 years old can still taste wonderful.

What makes port a good match for chocolate is the hint of sweetness in the wine that’s supported, in the best ports, by subtle, tantalizing fresh fruit flavors. A dark chocolate, not too sweet, captures and complements the port's sugar. Great port is as complex as a great Bordeaux or New World cabernet sauvignon, but in a completely different way. Just as you wouldn’t pair a cab with ice cream, you wouldn’t match a port with a steak. With port you want a food that complements and enhances the wine’s quiet sweetness and subtle fruitiness without bringing along a clashing acidity or oily fat. Strawberries dipped in chocolate come to mind. So does a really good chocolate truffle with raspberry filling.

A flavor combination I happen to love is orange with chocolate, and so another wine match for chocolate that’s a favorite of mine is dark chocolate accompanied by a glass of Essensia, a sweet dessert wine from Quady Winery in California that’s made with the orange muscat grape. You will find Essensia on the occasional restaurant wine list — it’s available at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT — and in a few well-stocked Vermont wine shops. It’s not on the New Hampshire state wine list, unfortunately.

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