The best part of Valentine’s Day, of course, is the chocolate, which you will possibly — probably? — be tempted to try with a little bit of wine. Chocolate, however, is surprisingly difficult to pair with wine because it’s inherently bitter. Think of cocoa powder as the tannin of chocolate, adding a bitter note due to compounds called flavanols. When you eat that tannic chocolate with some tannic wine, it’s bitter on top of bitter. Luckily, there is a solution: those iconic red-heart Russell Stover boxes of mixed chocolates.
We love fancy, bean-to-bar chocolate as much as anyone, but the cheaper mass-market chocolate you find in the heart-shaped boxes most likely has a lot more sugar than luxury chocolate with a higher cocoa content. The extra sweetness softens the bitter flavor, making it easier to find wine that works.
As for which wine to pick, you also want to find something where sweetness is accentuated over bitterness. Enter dessert wine, specifically fortified wines, so named because of the addition of (a little) extra alcohol during fermentation. The benefit: That added kick of booze stops the yeast’s sugar consumption, meaning the wine itself is a bit sweeter than it would be otherwise. Wines like this can be overlooked, but they deserve a Valentine’s partner, too — and they’re a perfect match with chocolate. (Since they’re a little boozier, they’re also great for sharing.)
Excellent fortified wines come from a myriad of different wine regions and grapes. And just like the different flavors in the chocolate box, there are so many to choose from. That said, here are a few archetypal fortified wines and their truffle counterparts.
Twenty-Year Tawny Port with caramel
This is a style of Port that experiences both oxidation (a.k.a. exposure to oxygen) as well as fortification when it’s made. Doing that gives the wine a layered effect of fruit, earth, and spice. It can be a lot of fun just to sit and smell these wines for a while. If you spring for an option with extended aging, like a 20-year Tawny, you can see why some people develop a Port obsession. The price tag is also pretty modest when you consider that the wine took two decades to find its way to your doorstep.
Taylor Fladgate 20 Yr. Reserve Tawny Port ($43)
Pedro Ximénez Sherry with an almond cluster
This is the sweetest style of Sherry. The wine has a nutty raisin flavor because the grapes are allowed to shrivel into a dehydrated berry before they are pressed for juice extraction. This means there will be a superhigh sugar ratio in the grapes, which makes for an intensely sweet wine. What prevents it from tasting like Aunt Jemima’s syrup is the equally high ratio of acidity in the wine that makes everything feel fresh and lifted.
Lustau Pedro Ximénez “San Emilio” Sherry ($23)
Malmsey Madeira with a peanut-butter crunch
Madeira is the name of an island off the coast of Portugal, as well as a very rad category of fortified wine that also comes from the same island. What’s so fascinating about these wines is that they are intentionally “cooked” during the aging process. After being exposed to heat over a long period, the wines take on a tropical-fruit brightness mixed with a deep chocolate flavor that many fans crave. Malmsey is the name of the grape used in this particular style of Madeira. (It isn’t uncommon to find bootlegs of these wines dating back to the mid-1800s because they can last the span of several human lives.)
New York Malmsey Madeira, the Rare Wine Company Historic Series ($42)
A Banyuls with classic chocolate truffles
These fortified wines come from the rugged hills in the Roussillon region of southern France. They are known for having funky, earthy notes as well as poppy dried red fruits and coffee to brighten the powerful punch on your palate. These wines also have what us wine folks call “grippiness,” meaning there’s a strong tannin presence. Some people in the biz argue that these wines are the most perfectly suited options for chocolate pairing out there, and it’s difficult to disagree.
2016 Banyuls “Cuvée Thérese Reig” Dom. de la Rectorie ($26)