This Valentine’s Day, impress your special someone with an intimate pairing.

While there’s a lot of mystery surrounding wine, pairing it with chocolate doesn’t have to be a daunting task… if you learn a few sweet tricks of the trade.

Wine and chocolate can be difficult to pair together because of all that sugar. For a balanced flavor, sugar requires sugar, so don’t pair a dark (bitter) chocolate with a sweet wine, or vice versa. A simple rule is to pair a sweet wine with sweet chocolate and a dry wine with dark chocolate.

There are four basic chocolate groups: white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and intense dark chocolate. Deciding what to start with may be the most complex decision you have to make. Regular wine drinkers usually reach for the dark chocolate first, knowing that when you taste wine you start with the driest wine and move toward the sweeter offerings.

Chocolate tasters (yes, they really exist!) prefer to start with the sweet and gradually go to the dark side. As a wine drinker, I’ve listed dark to sweet chocolates paired with dry to sweet wines. Follow your bliss, but be sure to have water available to cleanse your palate after each tasting.

To begin your wine-and-chocolate pairing adventure, take a sip of the wine and see what flavors you can identify. This could be anything from berry to spice to tobacco. It really depends on the type of grape(s) used and the style in which the wine was crafted. All that matters is what you can taste and name. Now take a small piece of chocolate, place it on your tongue and let it melt. Follow that with another sip of wine and let those flavors meld together.

Dark Chocolate + Dry Wine
Dark chocolate, sometimes called intense dark chocolate, is usually described as being bitter. No surprise, since it’s made up of 70 to 100-percent cacao and very little sugar: the higher the percentage of cacao, the more astringent the flavor. Dark chocolate’s concentrated flavors can be described as roasted, woody, nutty or earthy.

Wines to pair with intense dark chocolate include equally intense red wines like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz or Malbec, but steer clear of wines with a lot of oak because that heavy flavor will cover up the nuance of the chocolate.

Semi-Sweet Chocolate + Semi- Dry or Semi-Sweet Wine
Sometimes this semi-sweet treat is labeled as dark chocolate. To find out how dark it really is, check the percentage of cacao; 50 to 70-percent cacao is what you’re looking for. This is definitely not sweet, but it’s not as bitter as the true darks. This is more your middle-of-the-road chocolate that just about everyone likes. (Think of those semi-sweet chocolate drops used in chocolate chip cookies.)

Semi-sweet chocolate pairs wonderfully with a semi-dry wine like Merlot, Pinot Noir or Bordeaux. These wines are not as dry and astringent as those mentioned above, which is why you can pair them with a middle-of-the-road chocolate. You can also pair semi-sweet chocolates with a semi-sweet wine—just make sure it’s not too sweet. Think along the lines of a crisp Traminette or a Pinot Gris. The chocolate will offer up earthy, nutty flavors, and the wine will have floral or spicy overtones that will enhance the tasting experience. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try a semi-dry or semi-sweet fruit wine like cherry or blueberry with the semi-sweet chocolate.

Milk Chocolate + Sweet
Ah, this is a flavor we remember from childhood—a chocolate bar with all that cocoa, vanilla, milk, nuts, brown sugar and a creamy hint of honey. Milk chocolate has a much higher percentage of sugar, which removes the bitterness of the true cocoa flavor—it’s the perfect balance of rich, creamy and sweet. “Sweets for the sweet” applies here. Go with a Cream Sherry, Ruby Port or a nice Moscato. These wines also pair well with chocolates that have caramel in them.

White Chocolate + Bubbly
I’m going to start right out by bursting your bubble: white chocolate is not a real chocolate. It’s more of a confection made with vanilla and cocoa butter. That’s why those rich white chocolate flavors include milk, honey, vanilla, cream and caramel.

So what can you pair with something that sweet? Go for the bubbles—a sparking Moscato or demi-sec Champagne will do nicely, along with a White Zinfandel or Tawny Sherry. And since you can never have too much chocolate, here’s one more idea…

The Fail-Safe Wine Pairing
If you really want to make a big impression with minimal fuss, pair a ruby Port with milk chocolates, and a tawny Port with dark chocolates. Port is such an amazing “safe” pairing because it imparts a nutty, caramel and/or butterscotch flavor that works well with just about all chocolate. For an extra treat, try it with a chocolate that contains nuts—hazelnuts, almonds, even peanuts. Don’t like Port? Opt for Madeira instead.

Oh, and one final note. If you insist on the tried-and-true, chocolate-covered strawberries, pair them with a chilled non-oaky Chardonnay, preferably in a bubble bath.

As Forest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates … You never know what you’re gonna get.” Enjoy the discovery because that’s what it’s all about, sweetheart! a&s

Joy Neighbors is a writer and performer with more than a dozen years of experience as a winery owner. Visit joysjoyofwine.blogspot.com for more tips on wine and culture.