Wines of the Month

February, 2001

Short and Sweet

Short and sweet seems like a perfect description of February. I'm sure a lot of you are shaking your heads right now, thinking "He's really lost it this time. Short, sure. But sweet? February? The same month that brings piles of snow and bone-chilling temperatures?" Well, yes, that's the one. Why? Because in addition to the fierce winter weather, February also brings Valentine's Day, a holiday when people focus on the sweetness in their lives, plying their sweethearts with sweet treats.

While people have many ways of celebrating Valentine's Day, ranging from gifts of flowers, to fancy dinners, to weekend getaways, candy and wine are among the most traditional and most popular gifts. Unfortunately, to many people, Valentine's day means Champagne (or other sparkling wine) and chocolates. Why is it unfortunate? Because of the myth that "drier is always better," to many people, Champagne means Brut Champagne. And Brut Champagne and chocolate is one of the worst food and wine pairings that I can imagine. The heavy, sweet chocolate coats the mouth, obliterating any subtlety in the wine, and makes the Champagne taste thin and tart. Sweeter Champagnes fare a little better, but still are a far from perfect pairing.

So what kinds of wines go well with chocolate? Not many. Some people like Vintage (especially young ones), Late Bottled Vintage and Ruby Ports with chocolate. In my experience, these Ports can stand up to chocolate, but the chocolate rarely does the wine any favors. I prefer to try out the less-expensive wines with chocolate, and to leave the Vintage Ports for a match where they can really shine (like with Stilton cheese). Other common suggestions are for very sweet Sherry (for example one made from Pedro Ximenez), Madeira, Hungarian Tokaji Aszu, or the underappreciated wines from Setubal in Portugal (made from Muscat). Some of the folks from Down Under are particularly fond of their Liqueur Muscats with chocolate. However, while all these wines can stand up to chocolate, it is the rare example that actually benefits from the pairing. (And I really can't imagine why some people suggest Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel with chocolate.) The classic recommendation is for the sweet, fortified wines of Banyuls and Maury in France, which are said to be some of the only wines that actually improve when paired with chocolate. My experience has echoed the conventional wisdom; one example is the Domaine Mas Amiel Maury listed below. By itself, this wine was somewhat simple and hollow, but with dark chocolate, the palate filled out, offering generous fruit and vanilla flavors. Tasting Banyuls or Maury with chocolate for the first time can be a revelation. Still, even though there are some good matches, my general advice is not to try to pair most wines with chocolate. Either drink the wine by itself, or figure out something to substitute for the chocolate.

However, don't despair. I'm not suggesting that you skip the wine for Valentine's Day. My theory is that there are lots of great food matches for sweet wines, and there are also plenty of sweet wines that are enjoyable by themselves, so why limit yourself to a few (often subpar) choices, when there are so many great ones? Try going sweet and savory by matching cheese with sweet wines (e.g. Sauternes and Roquefort). Have some simple ripe fruit, marinated in Muscat, matched with the same wine. Or just enjoy some great sweet wines by themselves and let the winemakers really show their stuff! Great sweet wines are made all over the world -- from Europe to Australia, South Africa and North America -- in many different styles from many different grapes, so even if you don't like the first one you taste, don't be discouraged; there are plenty of other types to try. And since sweet wines are typically available in small bottle sizes, you can sample a few to see what you like without putting too big of a dent in your wallet (though sweet wines can quickly get very pricey) or getting too tipsy. And for any chocoholics out there, don't worry. I'm also not suggesting that you skip your favorite treat on Valentine's Day. Give some of these suggestions a try and just save the chocolates until later -- after all, it's a holiday, and we all deserve an extra treat, right?

In keeping with this month's theme, I've selected some "short and sweet" bottles for you -- "short" because they're available in 375ml or 500ml sizes, and "sweet,"...well, because they are. Enjoy!

Domaine Mas Amiel Grenache Cuvée Speciale Maury '84 -- From the Languedoc-Roussillon, this wine is one of the few that actually improves when paired with chocolate. Alone, the wine offers simple plum and vanilla aromas and flavors, with some alcohol evident on a slightly hollow palate. But, with dark chocolate, the wine blossoms into a round, generous glass full of plums, dark cherries and vanilla. The finish transforms into a lush mouthful of raisins, plums, vanilla, and some rancio flavors.
B- alone/B+ with chocolate

Domaine Cauhapé Vendanges du 2 Novembre Jurançon '95 -- From Southwest France, this wine is made from Petit Manseng. Seems closed and tight at first, with very little in the way of an aroma. There were some faint whiffs of honey, ripe melon, smoke and peach. On the second day, the nose showed a little more peach, apricot, honey, but there still wasn't too much. It tasted better than it smelled, offering honeyed botrytis flavors along with delicate melon, peach and, again, a little smoke. Feels rich in the mouth and has good acidity. Finishes somewhat short with good honeyed flavors. The wine was slightly drier than I expected and would be a good match with rich savory foods, such as foie gras or a rich cheese. Short, not complex, some botrytis, honey.

Disznókö Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttanyos '93 -- This Hungarian delight comes in the traditional (for Tokaji) 500ml bottle. Gold color. Extremely expressive nose of apricot, honey and a hint of nuts. This wine is definitely sweet, but the acidic structure keeps the wine in excellent balance. Shows layers of flavor, including apricot, walnut, honey and dried fruit. Viscous mouthfeel. Vibrant finish and long, lingering aftertaste of honeyed apricots. Will age well. My overall impression is of a rich and powerful, yet refined, wine. Somewhat less sweet than I expected, but that's not a criticism of this truly excellent wine. Well worth the $44 retail price if you're in the mood to splurge.

For more information on Tokaji, see our Royal Tokaji Wine Company Seminar and Tasting Notes from the 1999 Boston Wine Expo.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2001 by Marcel Lachenmann.