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February 7, 2010

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Time to sip wines, nibble chocolates

WHEN Valentine's Day is also the first day of the Year of the Tiger, how do we graciously combine the romance of Valentine's Day with the necessary communal celebration of the Chinese New Year?

One deliciously sweet solution is to enjoy chocolate and wine together.

In the gourmet world, chocolate has long represented romance while wine is unquestionably the greatest celebratory beverage.

The challenge is to pair the two together so they enhance the aromas, flavors and textures of each other.

A good start is to follow some long-established wine and food matching truisms.

For centuries wine connoisseurs have adhered to the idea that a dessert wine should be just slightly sweeter than the dessert.

In general, this is a good rule that works most of the time.

A beautifully feminine approach is the sweet Italian sparkling wine Moscato d'Asti with white chocolate or milk chocolate.

The delicate sweet flavors of the wine complement rather than overwhelm the subtle flavors of the chocolate.

The perfume-like aromas of the Moscato wine and sweet chocolates will please the nose while the gentle bubbles and pleasant acidic finish of the wine offset the creaminess of the chocolates, leaving your palate refreshed.

Two lovely moscato wines from top Piedmont producers are the Michele Chiarlo, Moscato d'Asti and Pio Cesare, Moscato d'Asti.

For a more macho experience, try dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa with heady and fruity red wines like Californian zinfandels or Italian Amarones.

Over a century ago the famed French oenologist Emile Peynaud proved that alcohol itself tastes sweet and heightens the feeling of sweetness in a wine.

Therefore it's no surprise that these very fruity red wines with 15 percent or higher alcohol provide the necessary sensations of sweet fruitiness to pair well with gourmet dark chocolate.

The smooth tannins in the wines also tend to pleasantly accentuate the slightly spicy nature of some dark chocolates providing even more palate stimulation.

To enhance your dark chocolate experience, I suggest trying Amarone wines from the reputed Veneto producers, Zonin and Masi, as well as one of the premium zinfandels from the specialist producer Seghesio.

So what's the best wine for chocolate? There's no perfect answer to this question, but when in doubt I suggest a sweet sherry or port because they pair nicely with almost all chocolates.

These fortified wines with 18-20 percent alcohol have the broadest range of synergistic pairings with the widest range of chocolates.

Even the bitterest dark chocolates with very high cocoa percentages won't overwhelm these fortified Iberian stalwarts.

A good sweet fortified wine has the power and generous fruitiness to stand up and to sooth the most extreme chocolate sensations.

Many chocolates also have dried fruits or nuts in them and these ingredients have long been preferred partners with sweet sherries or ports.

Recommended wines include the very budget-worthy Graham's Fine Ruby, and if you want to splurge a bit more, try the Graham's 10 or 20 Year Old Tawny. Two superb, yet also great-value, sweet sherries from the historic producer Lustau go fabulously with chocolates. They are the Lustau East India Sherry and Pedro Ximenez San Emilio Solera Reserva.


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