Chocolate and amore go with amaro

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It was on a warm summer evening, sitting in my usual corner at Waitsburg's jimgermanbar, that I had my wine-and-chocolate epiphany.

The question of which wine goes best with chocolate is a seemingly inexhaustible topic among wine writers, especially around V-day.

But for some reason it was on my mind on this particular evening, perhaps because I had recently sampled a bottle of chocolate wine, which did nothing good for the reputation of either ingredient.

Years ago I stopped ranting about all the things that can go wrong when pairing chocolate and cabernet sauvignon, realizing that: 1) my arguments didn't convince those who are quite certain that it is a match made in heaven, and 2) raining on someone else's parade is no way to win friends and influence impressionable young wine drinkers.

So for some time now my fallback position has been to recommend drinking port with chocolate, specifically tawny port, which is a fortified, rather sweet and caramel-flavored wine that does make a good partner to many chocolate desserts.

But there is an even better match -- one that is both more affordable and in some respects more interesting. Chocolate, you have met your soul mate, and her name is amaro.

Amaro, which means "bitter'' in Italian, is a category of herbal liqueur made throughout Italy and generally drunk as a digestif.

Most amari originated in the mid-1800s, developed in monasteries and herbal pharmacies.

(Note: Amaro is not the same as amaretto, an almond-flavored liqueur; and has nothing to do with amarone, a type of wine from the Veneto.)

Though it may be an acquired taste -- if you do not like a mix of flavors both bitter and sweet, with a medicinal kick, it's not for you -- once you develop a liking for amaro it is heavenly.

Individual versions are produced by macerating a proprietary mix of herbs, spices, flowers and citrus peels in alcohol, either neutral spirits or wine, blending with sugar syrup, aging in casks and bottling at between 16 and 35 percent alcohol.

It's not uncommon for a popular brand to include dozens of ingredients in a closely guarded formula.

I like to drink amaro straight up, sipping it to enjoy the concentrated, lingering flavors.

I would not recommend it before a meal during which you plan to open wine, but at meal's end, it is a perfect nightcap. It may also be served over ice, or mixed in cocktails.

Among dozens of brands produced in Italy, only a few are available here in Washington. Some to look for:

Averna.A traditional Sicilian amaro, sweet and syrupy, with 32 percent alcohol.

Ramazzotti. This is made in Milan, in a style somewhat less syrupy than Averna, and finished at 30 percent alcohol.

Nonino. More fruity and floral, a medium caramel color, with alcohol at 35 percent.

Montenegro. Packaged in a distinctive bottle, this is made in Bologna, from a 19th-century recipe using more than 40 herbs. It is relatively mild, finished at a port-like 23 percent alcohol.

Fernet. A subcategory of amaro, more bitter than sweet, and tipping the scales at about 45 percent alcohol. More of a cocktail-friendly amaro than one to try with chocolate.

Based on my limited exploration of the category, I have become especially fond of Ramazzotti, which is sold in some of the better-stocked state liquor stores.

You will find the best selections at bars that specialize in Italian liqueurs.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries'' is now in print. E-mail: paulgwine@me.com.

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