Dunne on Wine

Chocolate-flavored wine for Valentine’s Day? If you must, here’s the best of the bunch

Several of the wines in the chocolate-flavored-wine class at the 2017 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition.
Several of the wines in the chocolate-flavored-wine class at the 2017 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition. Mike Dunne

Valentine’s Day prompts people to do the silliest things, like booking a table for an intimate and romantic dinner on one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants.

But for many couples, it can get even sillier. They are the ones who finish the meal with a glass of chocolate-flavored wine. Sight apparently isn’t the only sense muddled by love.

Why does wine, one of the simplest yet most kaleidoscopic of beverages, need to be adulterated by something as foreign as chocolate to be appealing?

This bizarre combo can be traced in large part to the desperate efforts of vintners to piggyback on the enduring popularity of chocolate among Americans. If you can’t make a wine that is appealing on its own, the thinking goes, why not couple it with something that already has a loyal audience? (Coming up, no doubt, cannabis-, coconut- and turmeric-infused wines).

Granted, long before the introduction of chocolate-flavored wines, vintners were trying to persuade consumers of the affinity of chocolate and wine. Witness all the chocolate-and-wine festivals leading up to Valentine’s Day each year. Never mind that the compatibility of chocolate and wine pretty much is limited to chocolate and port.

Nevertheless, some market-savvy winemaker concluded that consumers would be better served by eliminating the vexing guesswork of choosing which chocolate to pair with which wine. He or she would do it for them, then bottle and sell the blend. Thus began the cavalcade of chocolate-flavored wines.

By 2013, some 30 brands of chocolate-flavored wine were on the market, according to trade magazine Wines & Vines. But the fad looks to have peaked that year, when sales of chocolate-flavored wine totaled $23 million, reports Danny Brager, senior vice president of Beverage Alcohol Practice, a wing of The Nielsen Company. Since then, yearly sales have slipped to less than $10 million.

I missed out on the trend until this past fall, when the five-person panel on which I sat at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition was assigned the class of chocolate-flavored wines – seven of them.

After several flights of such palate-battering wines like syrah, we looked forward to a class that would be soothingly sweet. One wag on the panel suggested the wines be served with graham crackers and marshmallows, but he was ignored.

I admit: I was skeptical about the assignment. But it is fair to say that the panel was surprised by the wide range of color, density, flavor and overall quality of the chocolate-flavored wines. A couple were ghastly, one with a texture akin to candle wax, another tricked up with the sort of coloring and sweetness intended to make cough syrup palatable to children.

We gave just one gold medal, to the ChocoVine Dark Chocolate ($9/$12), a finely balanced blend of Dutch chocolate and French cabernet sauvignon distributed by Royal Dutch Distillers of Miami, the American subsidiary of De Kuyper Royal Distillers in the Netherlands. It was sweet but not cloyingly so, and thick in body but not sluggish. Its rich and creamy chocolate flavor was accented with a note of almond.

In livestock-show tradition, Houston awards a class champion and reserve class champion for each class of wine. As our class champion, ChocoVine is available locally at Total Wine & More, according to the wine’s website.

The reserve class champion was the silver-medal Red Road Vineyard & Winery Chocolate Lach Rua ($25), a lively and resonating representative of the genre. It’s available only in its home state of Texas.

My overall favorite, for which I voted gold, though it ended up with a silver medal, was the seamless and alert Lambert Estate The Chocolatier ($28), an Australian tawny port flavored with dark chocolate. Deeply colored, with an amber rim, it was the most wine-like entry in the field in aroma, flavor and feel. Its thread of chocolate was evident but not so strong it upstaged the traditional fruitiness, smokiness and nuttiness of a tawny port.

And speaking of port, our Houston panel also judged a class of seven assorted ports. Both our champion and reserve champion were Texas entries not likely to be found hereabouts. But another standout was the inky, fruity and substantial Croft Reserve Douro Ruby Porto ($15), awarded a silver medal.

Two more splendid ports emerged as best-of-class winners at last month’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale: the young and intense St. Amant Winery 2015 Amador County Bootleg Port ($18), luscious with red-fruit flavor, spirited with spice and vivid in acidity; and the V. Sattui Winery 15-Year-Old California Port ($42), so rich, smoky and animated it could be mistaken for a classic tawny from Portugal.

Bottom line: Go with port on Valentine’s Day, with chocolate on the side. But for a shortcut, look for the ChocoVine Dark Chocolate or the Lambert Estate The Chocolatier.

Fire fallout

This past fall, as firefighters got the upper hand on wildland blazes in Napa County, I visited two vintners whose grapes and wine were jeopardized by the flames and smoke.

High above the east edge of Napa Valley, winemaker Aimee Sunseri walked briskly through the vineyard of her family’s Nichelini Family Winery, grabbing individual berries from nearly ripe bunches of grapes. They were to be sent to a lab for analysis to determine if the fruit had been damaged by smoke from the fires.

The results were negative, she said, but the study of smoke taint continues to evolve. Sunseri, wary that unwelcome traces of smoke still might develop in the wine she proceeded to ferment, is monitoring the batches, now aging in barrels.

“I haven’t picked up anything,” Sunseri says of her sensory evaluations of the wine so far, “but I’m prepared to be proactive if I do.”

If unpleasant levels of smoke become evident, she has three options: Subject the wine to high-tech treatment aimed at scrubbing it of smoke; sell it in bulk at a discounted price to some other producer and let them deal with it; or blend the wine with unaffected lots so traces of smoke would dissipate and be undetectable. She said the third option would be her preferred choice, particularly if the smoke was at a low level at the outset.

At the time of my visit, on the nearby valley floor, winemaker Ernie Weir was surveying the extensive damage to his family’s Hagafen Cellars, which included the destruction of a guest house, a chicken coop, grape bins and assorted equipment, including a relatively new tractor.

He was uncertain of the long-range damage to his vineyard and to about 14,000 gallons of wine still in stainless-steel fermentation tanks that got so hot during the fire that insulation and plastic on and around the vats charred and warped.

Today, he has a better handle on his anticipated losses, which could top $1 million, but questions remain. Flames damaged more than 2 acres of his cabernet sauvignon, but the extent of the damage can’t begin to be fully evaluated until budbreak and flowering starts this spring. The vines, if not destroyed, could recover from the shock. If he needs to replant, he will do that next year.

As to the red wine in tanks, he is negotiating with his insurance carrier to determine the status and value of the entire amount. If it is declared a total loss, payment would be based on its value as bulk wine, likely less than it would fetch if he were to bottle it under his own label.

“Every day I inhale deeply to reward myself that I am alive,” Weir says. “Then I exhale and begin to call the adjusters.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.