Each year when a holiday rolls around, there's a natural tendency to think what we can create to top last year. A more outlandish costume for Halloween, a bigger tree at Christmas, more exclusive bubbly for New Year's. And the same is true of Valentine's Day.
But in this era of affordable luxury and focusing on what's really important, there's something quite appealing about going back to the classics. For the jour d'amour (day of love), there's nothing more traditional than a gift of red wine and chocolate.
There's nothing shy about either of these; both chocolate and red wine are bold and forward when it comes to their flavors. Both have intensity, a suave and seductive quality. Chocolate and red wine are both described in terms of their sensual qualities, their silky textures, their earthy bite.
There seems to be some science behind the association with romance. A study in Great Britain at the University of Sussex found that people released four times as many endorphins after eating chocolate as they did after kissing. And resveratrol, an antioxidant in the skin of grapes, can mimic the female sex hormone estrogen, according to researchers at Northwestern University near Chicago.
Whether you're thinking deep, dark Belgian chocolate truffles with luscious glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or a milk chocolate drizzled strawberries with something sweet, red and bubbly, this is a duo that goes together. Here are some great ways to indulge in your passion for chocolate and red wine.
O'Brien Estate Seduction
For winemaker Bart O'Brien, it doesn't get much sexier than red wine. His O'Brien Estate winery in the Napa Valley created a sensation a few years ago when they released Seduction, a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and wrapped it up in a sheer, deep red chiffon bag reminiscent of a piece of lingerie.
The wine won awards for its balanced and complex flavors as well as admiration from plenty of red wine lovers. Bart and his wife Barb also make white wines at their winery in the Oak Knoll district, but he's made some telling observations about visitors who prefer red wines.
"We find that more serious wine drinkers tend to gravitate toward red wine," O'Brien says. "It's a bit of an evolution in terms of their relationship to wine. Red wines tend to be a bit more sensual, people tend to drink it more slowly and pay attention to it."
The evocatively themed wine was so popular that the O'Brien’s latest release is a Romantic Portfolio, with five different wines that are named for the different stages of courtship: Flirtation Rosé, Attraction Chardonnay, Romance of the Heart Merlot, Seduction Bordeaux blend, and Reflection late harvest dessert wine. Each bottle features a snippet of poetry written by Bart and his wife Barb, whose own love story is told on their web site.
Bart O'Brien suggests Seduction, a supple red wine with flavors of dark cherry, spice and cassis as the perfect wine to drink with a romantic dinner of roasted lamb. A man might prefer a steak, but O’Brien - who has made a study of the female mind - says women want to know they're being thought of.
"I like the concept of courtship where men are trying to pay attention to a woman and show they care about them and that they want to have a relationship," O’Brien says. "If you're trying to appeal to a woman, serve something more elegant and thoughtful."
Seduction and the Romance Portfolio are available at www.obrienestate.com.
The Omanehene Cocoa Bean Company
Think of places on the map responsible for satisfying our chocolate cravings, and countries like Belgium, Venezuela or Switzerland easily spring to mind.
"(But) how many cacao trees do you think there are in Switzerland?" asks Steven Wallace, founder and president of The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company. The answer is 0. For decades, chocolate makers based in Europe have bought cacao beans from other places like Ghana and Ivory Coast, brought them home and made them into chocolate candies.
Ghana was once the leading chocolate producing country in the world lauded for its high quality cacao; Wallace wants to help more people appreciate the deliciousness of Ghana's chocolate again. In 2001 he founded The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, which makes the world's only chocolate exclusively grown on small family farms and produced in Ghana. Omanhene means king or chief in Ghana's Twi language.
Chocolate starts with the cacao pods that grow from the trunk of the theobroma cacao tree. When the pods are ripe, they're harvested by hand and split open to reveal the seeds or cacao beans inside. Those beans are fermented, sun-dried and then roasted to bring out their rich chocolaty flavors. The roasted beans are then shelled and finished into actual chocolate.
Omanhene supports the local economy by having all of their cacao processed and made into chocolate bars, hot cocoa mix and baking chocolate in Ghana. Their chocolate bars are available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide or order online at www.omanhene.com.
Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto D'Acqui
Cleopatra, the best known female ruler of ancient Egypt, knew a thing or two about seduction. Although the Egyptian ruler was no great beauty by today's standards, she was highly charismatic and intelligent, wooing and winning some of the most powerful men of her time including Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar as lovers and political allies.
Historians are still talking about the way she would get ready for a visit from one of her paramours. She'd have servants pluck the petals off enough roses to make a perfumed "carpet" under her bed. Then she'd slather her sweet spots with a mixture of ground almonds and honey.
Her favorite wine? Historical documents say Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony both presented Cleopatra with gourds of brachetto (bra-KETTO), a wine from the Acqui region of Piedmont, Italy. Known for its musky aroma, it was perfumed with rose petals, violets and strawberries and considered an aphrodisiac of the day. The empress made sure that Caesar and Mark Anthony had a taste of the brachetto too, and served it herself on later visits.
Brachetto is still a much-loved wine today, usually as a sparkling wine. Banfi's version of brachetto goes by the name Rosa Regale which means the Royal Rose. The vivid magenta red wine lives up to that name, enveloping the drinker in a cloud perfumed with roses followed by a gorgeous sweet-tart flavor like a blend of ripe cranberries and raspberries.
Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui is available at wine shops nationwide.
Canady Le Chocolatier
Working as an academic advisor for the oil industry might seem like an odd background for a chocolate maker, but it was traveling abroad that Michael Canady discovered his love for fine chocolate.
"I like the artistry of making chocolate," says Canady, owner of Canady Le Chocolatier. "I like how it looks. It's my art form."
He took classes in Switzerland, Belgium and New York City before opening his cozy shop at 824 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago's South Loop. Canady crafts fine ingredients from around the world and into gelato and chocolate confections. The most sought after confections include his papaya truffles, velvety ganache perfumed with cinnamon, salted caramels dipped in chocolate and gianduja, an Italian style blend of hazelnuts and chocolate.
Even the box is a work of art: Canady's chocolates are packed in a handmade paper boxes adorned with flower petals.
Canady says he thinks bestowing chocolate upon loved ones at Valentine's Day is a tradition, just like accompanying it with a bouquet of flowers. People keep returning to his shop for a variety of reasons.
"The darker the chocolate, the greater the antioxidants," Canady says. "Chocolates are almost addictive because they're very good."
Canady's chocolates can be ordered online at www.canadylechocolatierchicago.com.