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March 1, 2012

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Loving pairings of wine and chocolate

YET another day for Asian lovers is White Valentine's Day on March 14, when men give women white (or dark) chocolates, marshmallows, white lingerie and other gifts. John Isacs pairs wine and chocolate.

My intense love of wine and chocolate regularly compels me to reflect and comment on their synergistic pairing. The near advent of White Valentine's Day when lovers in China, Japan and South Korea often give gifts of chocolate to show their love and admiration also makes this topic particularly timely.

(White Day, on March 14, and its chocolate-giving customs are most popular in Japan and South Korea, but any day's a good day for chocolate. On the Valentine's Day, women give chocolates to men - friends and coworkers. On White Day, men give presents to special women - white chocolates, marshmallows, cookies, white lingerie; jewelry is always welcome, as is old-fashioned chocolate.)

Let's take a brief look at how chocolate came to be one of the global symbols of love and also how the right Italian wine can make a variety of chocolates even more delicious and romantic. Why Italian wines? Because Italy makes some of the most varied and chocolate-friendly wines of the world and also some of the most romantic.


The theabroma cacao tree that produces cocoa beans that in turn are used to make chocolate has grown in northwestern South America for millions of years. The range of this remarkable tree expanded into Central America over 500,000 years ago. The oldest known civilization in the Americas, the Olmecs, picked cocoa beans and used them for food and drinks.

This precious bean also played an important role in the Mayan and Aztec cultures where it was consumed in solid and liquid form and used as a currency. The Aztec men believed that cocoa and its derivative chocolate foods and drinks bestowed them with greater physical powers in battles as well as potency in sex.

At the end of the 15th century, the earliest Spanish fleets to the New World brought back cocoa beans and chocolate products, but the European had little use for them. It wasn't until the beginning of the 17th century that chocolate drinks first became popular in Spain and surrounding countries.

Unlike the natives of Central American who preferred their chocolate bitter and spicy, the Europeans began to add sugar, honey and other ingredients to sweeten their chocolate drinks. Over the first few centuries, only the elite of Europe could afford chocolate, thereby helping establish its image as a luxury food. Over the next three centuries the production and love of chocolate spread globally and it is now one of mankind's most acclaimed and desired treats.


Chocolate, like wine, has historically been associated with romance and love. Premium quality chocolates with a high percentage (72 percent or higher) of cocoa content tend to have an abundance of phenylethylamine, the same chemical that is released in the brain when people fall in love. High-quality chocolate also contains serotonin that provides a heady sense of well-being and happiness.

By itself chocolate won't make you fall in love but it can certainly embellish amorous sensations. As I've covered in prior columns, wine also can embellish feeling of romance so it's no great leap of faith to believe that chocolate and wine properly paired will make any occasion more romantic.

Delectable duets

How to match chocolate with wine? First, I'll suggest ways that follow traditional wine and food pairing concepts, then suggest ways to deliciously break these rules. For centuries wine connoisseurs have counseled that a wine should be slightly sweeter than the dessert or sweet.

Beautifully feminine proof of this concept is when white chocolate meets Moscato d'Asti wines from Piedmont in northwest Italy. Made from the ancient Muscat variety, Moscato d'Asti wines are among the most delicate and perfumed sparkling wines in the world. The bubbles are fewer and less lively than in most other sparkling wines and the alcohol is also lower.

These gentle and perfumed wines are perfect with the subtle flavors and creamy texture of white chocolate. The sweet fruit and honey flavors of the wine adds flavor dimensions to the chocolate while the gentle acidity helps rinse the palate making the next bite even more delectable.

The most reliable way to pick a good Moscato wine it to make sure the full name of the wine is Moscato d'Asti as the best Muscat sparklers from Piedmont come from the vineyards around the town of Asti. Second, pick a top producer. Two of the best producers who have Moscato d'Asti wines readily available in Shanghai are Pio Cesare and Michele Chiarlo. Both producers make remarkably reasonably priced wines that reflect all the best qualities of Moscato d'Asti wines.

Following established rules may be a reliable way to get good results, but some of the most delicious combinations of chocolate and wine are realized when you break the rules. Two of my favorite examples of successfully breaking the rules are when dark chocolate meets big fruity red wines and chocolate-dipped strawberries embrace Prosecco sparkling wines.

Quality dark chocolate must have a high percentage of cocoa content with the highest examples being less sweet and slightly bitter like a good cup of coffee. These qualities make them perfect partners for a fruity and weighty red wine with abundant soft tannins.

One red wine that perfectly fits this description is Amarone from Veneto, Italy. The full name of this style of wine is Amarone della Valpolicella and it is predominately made of the Corvina red wine grape with some Rondinella and Molinara grapes added to the blend. The sweetness and weight of this wine are a result of the grapes being sun-dried before the winemaking process.

The ripe and elegantly juicy red and dark fruit flavors of this big red wine helps accentuate the richness of the dark chocolate while mitigating the bitterness and cleansing the palate.

Because of the relatively high alcohol of these red wines there's a sensation of sweetness in the mouth that complements the natural flavors of the chocolate. I suggest picking an Amarone from Masi, Zonin or other leading Veneto producer, buying top quality dark chocolate and choosing a romantic setting. The result is sure to be a harmonious and loving occasion.

Popular Hollywood movies often show couples enjoying champagne and strawberries together. Personally the intensity and acidity of champagne wines make them more suitable to other foods but not strawberries and especially strawberries dipped in chocolate.

Instead, I suggest enjoying these treats with a Prosecco sparkling wine as good Prosecco wines combine a friendly fruitiness and freshness that help harmonize the contrasting flavors and textures of the strawberry and chocolate in more gentle and accommodating manner than more acidic sparklers. There are an abundance of palate- and budget-pleasing Prosecco wines in Shanghai. Some of my favorites are Carpene Malvolti, Bisol and Tenuta S. Anna.


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