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Rod Byers: A look at the Valentine’s Day tradition of pairing wine and chocolate

Rod Byers

There are few combinations as iconic as wine, chocolate and Valentine’s Day. Wine, chocolate and love, three aphrodisiacs creating a perfect storm of desire.

History offers us variations of the Valentine’s Day origin story. One popular version suggests Saint Valentine became known as the patron saint of love for performing weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry because of a Roman edict declaring married soldiers made poor warriors.

Whatever the version, the love connection has deep roots. The ancient Greeks observed a mid-winter festival celebrating the marriage of Zeus and the goddess Hera. The ancient Roman calendar included Lupercalia, a mid-February bacchanal that celebrated fertility in both lascivious and ominous ways.

Feb. 14 has been Saint Valentine’s Day for 15 centuries, ever since Pope Gelasius made the declaration in 496 AD.

Wine was there from the beginning. How could you ever have a good fertility festival without it? The vine’s rebirth every spring made wine the very symbol of fertility.

Chocolate was the last one to the party. Chocolate spread across Europe in the 1600s becoming fashionable among society’s elite. Known only as a drink, the creation of edible, solid chocolate didn’t occur until 1847.

Richard Cadbury perfected “eating chocolates” as a way to use the cocoa butter extracted from the process used to make drinking chocolate. In 1861 Cadbury introduced heart-shaped Valentine boxes of edible chocolates decorated with images of Cupids and rosebuds. Victorian England went crazy for it and the world has never been the same.

The idea of wine and chocolate is a winner. Combining the “food of the Gods” with the “drink of the Gods” seems, for a lot of people, divine. Speaking strictly for myself, I have never been one of them.

In spite of the expressed love of red wine and chocolate, I find chocolate makes my favorite red wines worse. It violates a cardinal rule of wine and food pairing. That is, when the food gets sweeter than the wine, it makes the wine appear harsh and sour.

It doesn’t matter whether it is an appetizer, entrée or dessert, when the food is sweeter than the wine, it makes dry wines less friendly. I’m not saying wine and chocolate can’t be magical, but it is why tasting rooms wait for the port before suggesting how well it goes with chocolate.

Try chocolate with an oaked Chardonnay or burly Cab and it’s a different reaction.

That was why I was curious to meet Becki Tyner, the creative owner of The Chocolate Architect (www.chocsilk.com), a delightful chocolate-wine bar in Folsom.

Tyner grew up in Lodi, graduated as an architect from Cal Poly and developed a successful career in Sacramento.

“My grandmother was an amazing cook,” Tyner explained. “She gave me her recipe for chocolates and I started making them.”

Before long she was giving boxes of beautifully packaged chocolates to her clients as gifts. While still working as an architect, she was constantly tinkering with flavors and perfecting recipes earning an inner circle reputation for making really good chocolate.

In 2002 Tyner made the leap, opening the Chocolate Architect. She describes her delicious recipes as Chocolate Silk, a European-style ganache not unlike the inside of a truffle.

Getting established she participated in charity wine events. “Once we started pairing the chocolate and wine together, that’s when things went bang. People loved it “

Now with 80 different flavored chocolates, Tyner offers 12 wine and chocolate pairings. Each pairing includes four wines, each with its own chocolate. Various flights incorporate sparklers, rosés, whites, reds and dessert wines.

There is no question we love the idea of chocolate and wine together, yum and yum, but do we actually like the taste?

I came home with three boxes, one designed to pair with Chardonnay, one with Pinot Noir, another with Zinfandel. I invited Anne and Phil Starr of Sierra Starr Winery and Kim Crevoiserat, general manager of Nevada City Winery and her husband Don. I asked them to bring over as many wines as they wanted, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel in quest of a match.

I checked before starting. Two of us thought chocolate and wine were a grand combination, three of us were less sure. We had white, milk and dark chocolate as well as twelve different styles of flavored chocolates with flavors like orange swiss, cherry blossom, hot chili mango, and fireball and over a dozen dry wines from a Riesling to Reserve Cabernet.

Hopefully we would find not just compatible matches, but combinations that would transcend the sum of the parts.

We didn’t.

There are three possible outcomes to any wine and food pairing. The food either makes the wine less agreeable, leaves it unchanged or makes it better. When we were finished, everyone’s scoresheet had mostly down arrows finding the wines less agreeable with chocolate, with only a very few up arrows. Curiously, the wine least negatively impacted was the Riesling.

That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy wine and chocolate. Remember the rule. The wine must be at least as sweet as the food. Late harvest wines, muscats, madeira, sherries and port can all be fabulous with flavored chocolates. Matching sweetness with sweetness frees the aromas and flavors to fraternize.

If you are really sold on dry wine and chocolate then separate the sip from the bite allowing both to remain delicious on their own.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172.

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