‘A Cask Of Amontillado’ For My Funky Valentine

Thinking pink?  Or, red instead?  The usual Valentine wine line?

This year, consider considering outside the Whitman Sampler® box.

The 'It Couple' of 1975

Of course, most columns written about this over-written-about subject will lean toward recommending wines that pair well with chocolate, and not just because of Ogden Nash’s old saw about ‘candy is dandy, liquor is quicker, but roofies are goofy’: There’s genuine chemistry behind every magical union, from Adam and Eve to Tammy Faye and Jimmy to John Hinckley and Jodie Foster—and when it comes to food and wine, chocolate finds its soulmate as readily as chicken.

The version labeled semi-sweet, with less sugar and more cocoa butter than sweet chocolate, is known in France as couverture  but this isn’t the holiday to go halves on anything.   Should you make an overture after giving her couverture, I guarantee the chocolate won’t be the only thing that missing some sugar.  However, if you figure out how to get beyond that, a lovely foil with semi-sweet chocolate is an unusual fortified apéritif from the AOC Banyuls—a tiny French region bordering Spain in the Catalan Pyrenees.  Banyuls is Port-sweet, but not as high in alcohol, typically topping out at around 16% ABV.  Made from blend of some, but not necessarily all, grenache noir, grenache gris, grenache blanc and carignan, Banyuls is plump and dulcet with chocolatey notes spun with candied cherries and a nice dose of nuttiness—which she will have to share if she’s giving up anything after you gave her cooking chocolate.

Milk chocolate, a nineteenth century Swiss innovation, owes its richness in part to milk solids and milk fats, which may be in higher percentages than chocolate, especially in the United States, where only 10% of the product is required to be chocolate ‘liquor’—the by-product of fermented, crushed and roasted cacao seeds.  Milder, fattier-tasting and sweeter than couverture,  this is a good spot to wedge in a sparkling wine.  Banfi’s Rosa Regale (around $16) is a rare, rich red; redolent of roses and raspberries, it’s made from the Piedmont grape brachetto and shows both sugar and acid to compliment the creaminess of the chocolate.

Dark chocolate is the bean dreamer’s most concentrated fantasy, with FDA legal minimums set at 18% cocoa butter, 14% fat-free cocoa and 35% cocoa solids, making it the crack of confections—to a Hershey Kiss what mainlining pharmaceutical-grade cocaine is to a cup of decaf.  It requires a wine of sufficient gusto to match.  Popular palaver proposes that the high tannin in a young, robust zinfandel or malbec brings out chocolate’s subtle fruit notes, but personally, I’m not a major fan of pitting super-dry red wines against super-rich chocolates.  Still, on the chemical pallet, the unctuous cocoa butter cuts through the parch in the same way that the marbling on a steak does; my issue is the sweetness.  I prefer to perch a puissant Port beside a truly decadent chocolate-based dessert; something in the special occasion range like Warre’s Vintage, 2007, an elegant, velvety Port that at $60 is about the same price-per-pound as that Lismore-footed dish of Pierre Marcolini Truffe Brésilienne—praline-dressed ganache wrapped in caramelized almonds.

Telling Little White Truths

After all is said, I’m guilty-pleasure sucker for mellow, buttery white chocolate.  As a kid, we always wound up with white bunnies in the Easter basket, and white seems a color more suited to the approach-of-spring—even now, in mid-February.  I’ve found that chocoholics divide into camps, with purists sniffing at the notion that ‘white’ and ‘chocolate’ can be uttered in the same sentence without committing blasphemy.  I’m convinced, though, that what they’re sniffing at ain’t an albino Amedei Bar Toscano Bianco.

“I have a dream that I will one day live in a nation where chocolate is not judged by the color of it solids but by the content of its cocoa butter.”

Such anti-white reverse racism likely stems from the USDA’s former definition of white chocolate which claimed that it wasn’t even ‘chocolate’ since it contained no cocoa—sort of duh considering that if it did, it wouldn’t be white.  This troglodyte characterization also ignored an inconvenient truth: That white chocolate contains more cocoa butter than any other chocolate category, as well as a minimum of 20% cocoa fat that is not required for its darker-skinned brothers.  Probably the only reason that us white supremacists did not march on Washington in 1963 to demand equality in Chocolate Rights is that, unlike couverture,  white chocolate does not contain any of psychoactive stimulants like theobromine or caffeine that would have gotten us off our lazy asses.  Our emancipation day came in 2003, when the USDA finally forced our integration into the College of Chocolatology.

And I’m all over a wine pairing like white on rice… and not saké.  Probably the best achromatic chocolate on the market is again from the Brussels chocolatier Pierre Marcolini:  Truffe Champagne made from creamy Champagne ganache and dusted with confectioner’s sugar, and selling for around $9 per ounce, and is perfectly comfortable mating with a 1995 Fleury Doux Champagne, selling for around $3 per ounce.

Pedro Ximénez, that is.

But this pairing is champagne/champagne specific—with most white chocolate, my favorite paramour is a demi-sec Pedro Ximénez grape-based Amontillado.  Any sherry primer can fill you in on the basics, such as https://intoxreport.com/2011/08/25/339/ but the Cliff’s note version of Amontillado is that it is a complex, aged sherry fortified after moving through the first solera, then further aged and oxidized in a second solera. As a result it has a much deeper color than fino sherry, but is not as dark as an oloroso.  Its rich, nutty, buttery dried-fruit nummy-numminess is a wonderful balance to white chocolate.

In popular conception, of course, this luscious liquid is most associated with that spooky short story about the jester in the dungeon—so, in honor of the master, the sherry, Valentine’s Day and my precious first wife, who I haven’t seen since around 1998, I have written a tribute poem to Edgar Allen Poe and The Cask of Amontillado.

My Funky Valentine,  By Montresor Kassel

I couldn’t stand that clown at all,

So I sealed her in the wall.

Now, because her corpse grows rotten,

She is gone, but not forgotten.

In pace requiescat!

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