Ah . . . fall. Drying leaves, crisp weather, and rich food. It's my favorite time of year when — for some odd reason — the relaxed mood lends itself to gluttonous cravings with less guilt. And real chocolate is the sin of this season. I'm not talking about the Halloween stash cached in the treat drawer. I'm talking about the rich, pure, adult flavor of well-made milk, semi- or bittersweet chocolate. And adult chocolate, savored nakedly without the distraction of cookies or cakes, deserves a proper wine partner.
Like wine, chocolate is labor intensive. Cocoa pods desire a tropical climate and, as with grapevines, a grower must patiently wait three to five years before a tree bears fruit. Hand-harvested, the pods wear a coconut-tough outer shell that must be shattered with a hammer. Ensconced inside are anywhere from 20 to 50 cream-colored beans, and after painstakingly fermenting, roasting, and grinding them, cocoa is born. Four hundred beans make one pound of luscious chocolate, created by adding fat and sugar to the cocoa solids.
Milk, semi- or bittersweet chocolates are variations of how much cocoa solids they contain. White chocolate has no cocoa — so many countries don't consider it chocolate at all. Frankly, I don't either. It's like frozen yogurt — not the real thing. And I liken milk chocolate, with 10-20 percent cocoa solids, to the missionary position — plain and simple but still satisfying. To pair a wine with it, generally the wine's sweetness should equal if not surpass the chocolate's sweetness. Otherwise, the acidity and/or tannins take over and the combo becomes a bitter divorced couple in court. One perfect fit for milk chocolate is Italian Moscato, a slightly sweet, mildly sparkling wine. Or swig a fruity riesling or tawny port.
Semisweet, in the 40-62 percent cocoa range — what you'll find in most chocolate chip cookies — is for the slightly more adventurous. Lighter-flavored chocolate should be served with a lighter-bodied wine like ripe, lively merlot or a fruit-forward, juicy pinot noir.
But robust (and heart-healthy) bittersweet chocolate, from 60 to 90 percent cocoa solids, is more like reading the stories in Penthouse Forum , perhaps a bit powerful for prudish taste buds, but you'll never forget the experience. The sharp bite of bittersweet chocolate can thrash a weak wine, so match it with something equally as brawny. It can make magic with high-octane zinfandel or petite sirah, either table or late-harvest versions. Or, if your chocolate has a roasted quality, like those from the Dominican Republic, look for varietals that display that same characteristic — like cabernet sauvignon or syrah. But pair carefully; this robust chocolate can whip your taste buds.
Stanley Lambert Choc-o-Bloc South Australia From an Australian and American family partnership emerges a 5-year-old tawny port infused with melted chocolate. This drink will suffice for both dessert and wine. Tastes like a liquid Tootsie Roll laced with dark roasted coffee and caramel. Delicious, even for non-port-lovers. $35 (750-ml).
Stag's Leap 2006 Petite Sirah (California) Jammy, bold with blackberry, raspberry, and black pepper but with milder tannins than many petite sirahs. It's big — huge even — not a wine for a wimpy palate. A bit of an alcoholic finish, but there's nothing wrong with that, right? $30.
Warre Ottima 10-year Tawny Port (Portugal) From one of the oldest port houses in existence comes a relatively affordable juice. Lighter in style (but not in flavor) than many other tawnies, it's raisiny with toasted hazelnuts, sweet toffee, and a hint of pine. $26 (500-ml).
Candoni Moscato d'Italia Terre di Chieti Many Moscatos come from the Asti region, but this one originates from the Chieti province in Abruzzo. Loaded with peaches, tangerines, and honey, this sweet sparkler satisfies a craving but also pairs well with Asian food. $10 (750-ml).