Holiday season lurks on the horizon, so what better time to dig into pairing chocolate with Port? Both evoke images of light snow falling, family get-togethers, and a slow warmth that slides down your throat, pools into your toes, and meanders back up again to give you a heady delight. To best equip you to ooze into that proverbial puddle in the yummiest way possible, here is some sage advice from Anton Hicks, my new best friend and Managing Partner of Nectar Wine Lounge, a gem of a spot in San Francisco’s Marina district.

Anton is always eager to share his love and knowledge of wine, so I was shocked to find out he has only been in the industry for about five years now. “I’m relatively new to the practice of slinging wine, although I’m an imbiber of old,” he says mischievously. In IT strategy consulting in his past life, the dot.com bubble burst and he – like many of us who had been living high on the hog until the layoffs – suddenly had lots of time and lots of wine. While attending a sommelier conference, he met his future business partners and the seed that now flourishes as Nectar was born.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Anton is living proof that merely possessing a passion for good wine can take you very far indeed. “I studied modern European history in college, which was not of terribly much use as a career as it turns out, “he quips wryly. “Now I do all the wine-describing and design all of our marketing collateral….in between sips of course!”

Many experts and articles seek to warn us that in general, chocolate and wine do not a good pairing make. Anton says the sweet, fat and bitter components of various chocolate types have a tendency to wreak havoc on wine, especially reds, and can bring out some really odd flavors. If you throw sweet wine into the mix, though, things get a little easier and make for some lovely compliments. And Port can provide a wonderful groom to a chocolate bride.

For those of us who think of libraries or English gentlemen when we hear the word, what is Port anyway? Port is a fortified red or white wine and we learned in our September article that this means extra alcohol has been added. Historically, this was done to preserve certain wines on long journeys, but is now done to elicit sweetness. Remember also our rule of thumb about ensuring your wine is sweeter than your dessert. This holds true for pairing Ports as well.

While multiple sub-varieties exist, in general Port comes in three styles: Ruby, Tawny and Madeira.

Ruby

Ruby ports are your classic port style and work well with chocolate. Anton suggests pairing basic chocolates with Ruby ports: Ganache-filled truffles, plain dark chocolate, maybe even fruit-filled chocolates. “Since Ruby ports have a sweet plumy, cherry, blackberry thing going for them,” Anton recommends, “I like pairing similar flavor profiles with them.”

Anton’s Ruby Picks: “Late Bottled Vintage Ports, LBVs for short. These are single vintage ports that have spent some time in the cask and are usually filtered so there’s no need to decant or age them yourself. Just pop-and-go, nice and easy. They tend to have a bit more “oomph” than your standard Non Vintage (NV) Port, without being as spendy as Vintage Port. By cost comparison, NV Port runs about $15-$20, LBV runs from $25-45 and Vintage runs $70 on up. The 2000 vintage LBVs are coming into the country now and are luscious across the board. Port styles differ by house- some have a drier style, some run sweeter, some more floral - and my favorite house is Ramos Pinto—their style tends to be brawny and powerful, with gobs of gooey, spiced fruit. It’s not subtle, but I have to admit, yummilicious. Incidentally, they make a nice white port too, which makes a great cocktail with tonic water and slices of citrus.”

Tawny
Tawny ports range from a pink to orange-brown hue, and tend to be slightly less forceful than Ruby ports They possess a certain sweet baking spice aspect to them, along with a touch of rancio (that slightly bitter “rancid” almond flavor). Tawnys bridge the sweet fruit flavor of a Ruby and the caramel, salty nuttiness of a Madeira. Anton recommends pairing a Tawny with slightly spicy chocolates, like Mexican, or those with a fruity, acidic tone. “Nuts go well with Tawnys,” Anton says, “although I tend to like them even better with Madeira, so it’s a case by case thing.

Anton’s Tawny Picks: “On the Tawny side, I’m a fan of the 10 or 20 year Tawnys. Yes, they can go up to 40 years and they are damned good, but the older they get, the harder they are to pair with anything, and they get rather expensive as well. Dows makes some serviceable, nice, well-distributed Tawnys. The 10 year runs in the high $20s and the 20 year in the high $30s to low $40s.

Madeira

Madeira is the fully brown port, technically from the island of Madeira, that runs from tan to dark brown. You get a lot of caramel, salty, roasted hazelnut flavors from Madeira along with a good dose of rancio. Anton suggests chocolates that incorporate nuts or caramel to intensify those flavors. If you’re into savory, try pairing a Madeira with chocolates made with sea salt to bring out that salty component.

Anton’s Madeira Picks:
“Madeiras come in several different styles, or ‘weights.’ Try Buals or the Malmeys (the heavier and more powerful of the styles) since they tend to have the stuffing it takes to hold up against the chocolate. Sercials and Verdelhos are beautiful and nuanced, and I love them with the good old nuts, cheese and dried fruit combo, but they tend to get beat up by chocolate. There are some nice 10 and 15 year Madeiras: Blandy’s makes one that is easy to find and is always a solid bet. They just released a 25 year which is a tad pricey (about $75) but is apparently rather epic…we shall see.”

At the end of the day, if you don’t love Port, then by all means, pair something else with the chocolate. What about someone who wants to take a walk on the wild side? Anton suggests the following offbeat combos:

  • Basic dark chocolate truffle with Sparkling Shiraz, a cold and bubbly Australian treat
  • White chocolate infused with tropical fruit paired with Albarino, or other crisp, high acid white with tropical notes
  • Single vineyard dark chocolate (with a bright cherry top note) paired with a rosè Cava
  • Chocolate covered apricots and a nice Sauternes

If you live in the Bay Area, please stop into Nectar Wine Lounge in the Marina or in Burlingame and do some tastings on your own or see if Anton is in. And partake of their lovely nibbles and desserts as well. If you live elsewhere, I highly recommend stocking up on a few varieties, hitting your favorite gourmet chocolate spot, and enjoying your own “Choco-Port” tasting party with this article as a guide. Cheers!

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists.  She is based in Seattle.