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Pinot and chocolate: A heavenly match

You know it when it's right — combinations in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Cookies and milk. Bacon and eggs. Sweet corn and butter. Some of these are natural progressions along the same flavor spectrum.

Others start out at opposite ends, but from the moment their essences meet, it's magic. Like a big, ol' juicy slab of prime rib and sinus-blowing scoop of horseradish. Putting the two together seems a little demented. But someone did and, in so doing, confirmed one of life's most fundamental facts: Opposites attract. Take ketchup and scrambled eggs. Oil and vinegar. Berries and cream. Chocolate and pinot noir.

Pinot and chocolate. It's a natural, so easy one hardly knows where to begin. Starting with chocolate, you could go with a simple, solid chunk — nothing wrong with that. Or a simple, chewy-chocolaty brownie or fluffy dollop of chocolate mousse. Or a wedge of chocolate cheesecake. These and most of their relatives are in love with pinot, and pinot loves them.

Of course, when it comes to confections and wine, it's reasonable to consider wines that are sweeter in nature than the classic, dry pinot noir. Pinot ports, for example, are a very hot and delectable commodity these days in Oregon. And what I like about them, when they're made properly, is their complexity. They're sweet, yes. But the sweetness is tempered by a rich flavor blast of fruit, spice, oak and so much more.

I've learned to trust the palate of wine professional Maggie Crawford, manager and co-owner of Grand Vines Wine Shop and Bistro in downtown Salem. She got her wine chops in Southern California's wine market, but Oregon has been her home for almost two decades now, and the wine industry has benefitted from her transfer.

"We make more ports than ever before here in Oregon," says Maggie.

But when it comes to pairing with food, you have to know what style of port you're dealing with. In general, she says, it's tawny ports versus ruby ports.

"Tawny ports tend to be nutty and brown-sugary in nature, so they go better with roasted nuts and cheeses. They also go well with some chocolates. Not every chocolate. But definitely nutty chocolate."

On the other hand, continues Maggie, "the ruby ports tend to be fruitier and cherry-esque. So they will go better with fruit desserts. Really, unless the label literally says 'tawny,' most of the ports we make in Oregon are rubylike, party because they're made from a lighter grape than normal port is made from. Most ports in Oregon are made from pinot noir.

"So they tend to be fruitier. They also tend to be a bit lighter. There are people who do make tawny ports, however. David Hill, for one, makes a really nice, true tawny. It's made out of pinot noir, but the style is a tawny."

I've noted that Eola Hills cabernet port also is a tawny style. And in fact, it's my ultimate pairing for my favorite candied hazelnut recipe, Grandma Aden's Candied Filberts. I'm including it here.

In Southern Oregon, Abacela grows five Portuguese varietals in their own vineyards specifically to create an estate port in a fruity and extra-rich ruby style that thrives alongside chocolate.

But I wondered about the late-harvest Oregon wines, like gewurztraminer. "Well," says Maggie, "gewurz' being a little spicy, and riesling being a little more fruity, along with late-harvest viogniers, those tend to go better with nonchocolate sweets. But really, they're OK with roasted nuts and nut-laden chocolate sweets. Think hazelnut tortes or toasted almond brownies."

It's not exactly as cut-and-dried as you might think. Both components bring varying levels of acidity that affect their compatibility. From the wine end, a rich and nutty tawny port is less acidic than a late-harvest gewurztraminer. From the dessert side of things, think chocolate truffle versus lemon tart.

Pairing a sweet, low-acid wine (such as tawny port) with a tangy dessert, or pairing a low-acid dessert (such as creme brulee) with a high-acid wine makes the tangier partner taste sour.

Here are some final thoughts on beverage pairings with the following desserts.

Chock-full of toasty almonds and hazelnuts, luscious dried figs and thick, golden honey, Back-Country Panforte pairs fabulously with Abacela 2009 Port, made entirely from Douro wine grapes, estate-grown at the Roseburg-area winery. The wine delivers a cascade of aromas from raisin and black berry, to dried figs, plums and cocoa with a toasty, spicy finish. Then there's David Hill's white muscat port, which mirrors the panforte with its cloves, cinnamon, dried apricots and orange. Imperial stouts are another beverage traditionally served with fruit-cakelike desserts, and a very nice one from Oregon is most definitely Rogue Ales XS Russian Imperial Stout, which has garnered international attention in the past few years.

Hazelnut Shortbread Wafers With Raspberries and Chocolate are a delicious treat with a glass of milk, cup of tea or mug of coffee. But for after dinner, I'd definitely encourage you to offer a lovely dessert wine, such as Harris Bridge Vineyard Sarah's Stories pinot gris or your favorite ruby-style port.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.