It’s February, and love is in the air. Valentine’s Day is coming fast, and so are red wine-and-chocolate tastings at Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan and Olympic Peninsula wineries. While sweet wines tend to make better mates than dry reds for most chocolate preparations, a big part of the fun at these events comes from experiencing the creativity that this challenging pairing inspires. (Note: Due to recent snowstorms, the Olympic Peninsula Wineries association is extending its Red Wine, Cider & Chocolate tastings to include the weekend of February 23–24.)
On the Olympic Peninsula, Camaraderie Cellars is matching its Washington tempranillo with cocoa-spiced pulled pork. Chimacum’s Finnriver Farm & Cidery is pairing locally made truffles with flights including ciders and its new chai-spiced brandy wine. In the Yakima Valley, local chocolatier Jade Visser is creating separate, distinct sensations for two wineries. The ganache filled dark chocolates she is crafting for Dessert Wind Winery is infused with the winery’s signature Ruah red blend. (Visser’s business, Jade’s British Girl Treats, is based at Dessert Wind.) For Treveri Cellars, she is making syrah-infused molded chocolates to pair with Treveri’s sparkling wines, which include a sparkling red syrah. In Chelan, Tsillan Cellars will serve Baci Perugina hazelnut dark chocolates, imported from Italy, with its Sinistra blend (barbera, sangiovese, merlot and syrah). Winery owner Bob Jankelson describes the wine as light enough to complement the chocolates, without overpowering them.
Try this at home
Pairings such as these speak to the complexities of trying to pair red wine with chocolate. Thanks to the bitterness that each brings out in the other, it can be like trying to set two friends up on a date. Sure, we might love two things, or people, on their own. But this alone won’t automatically make them great together. Because life is complicated. Sometimes, the benign or even lovable qualities of each, when combined, end up leaving a foul taste in everyone’s mouth. On the other hand, when it does work out, it’s awesome for all parties.
Seattle wine educator Reggie Daigneault suggests combining dark chocolate—at least 70 percent cacao—with an element that matches one of the components in a wine’s fruit or spice profile. Think dried cherries, such as those you might find at your local Trader Joe’s, for cabernet sauvignon. Or dried blackberries or black pepper for syrah. “I think there is plenty of fun you can have with the pairing, but for the most part, you really need a ‘bridge’ ingredient,” she explains.
Visser, the Yakima Valley chocolatier, notes that the weight of a wine can help guide your chocolate choice. A heavier wine, for example, will typically work better with darker, more intense chocolate. She also recognizes that taste is a personal thing. “It comes down to you being your own best judge,” she says. “What one person likes, someone else might not like. I recommend trying different pairings until you find a blend that works for you.”
A trained chef from the United Kingdom who lived in Oregon for about 25 years before moving to Sunnyside a couple of years ago, Visser has an additional piece of advice. When tasting chocolate, let a small piece dissolve on your tongue. Then press your tongue up against the roof of your mouth and let each layer of flavor sink in.
Sample the sweet life
Of course, there’s more to these themed tasting weekends than just red wine and chocolate. They also provide a fun reason to get out and enjoy late-winter scenery in cool settings. At Lake Chelan, you can head up to Echo Ridge for a morning on Nordic-ski trails before visiting the tasting rooms. The Olympic Peninsula’s forests and beaches impress any time of year. So do the shrub-steppe and orchards throughout the Yakima Valley. Since crowd sizes tend to be moderate, it’s also a fun time to reconnect with the staff at your favorite wineries. And discover others that you’ve never visited before. And even though these events occur near Valentine’s Day, singles and groups seem to have as much fun as couples.
Perhaps the aforementioned pairing at Tsillan Cellars best reflects the red wine–and-chocolate vibe. Jankelson, a retired dentist who established his winery in 2000, traces his fondness for the Baci Peruginas to summers he spent as a guest instructor at Italian universities from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. During this time, he struck up a friendship with a local colleague, who invited him to his family’s villa outside Milan at the end of each school term. A typical day included a morning walk to the market in town and a long lunch back at the villa. Baci Peruginas, filled with hazelnut paste, invariably accompanied those last few sips of wine at the end of the repast. For Jankelson, the chocolates are a personal connection to a special time and place. And a way for him to bring a taste of la dolce vita to the Pacific Northwest.
(Photo by franckreporter)
Update: On the Olympic Peninsula, participating wineries and cideries host Red Wine, Cider & Chocolates on two weekends: Feb. 16–18, which includes the Presidents Day holiday, and Feb. 23–24. Lake Chelan Wine Valley’s Red Wine and Chocolate fills two weekends: Feb. 9–10 and Feb. 16–17, but does not include the holiday Monday. Yakima Valley’s 2019 Red Wine & Chocolate takes place Feb. 16–17 only.