Once, it was enough just to unwrap a bar of chocolate and eat it. Now, you must understand it. Note the glossy shine that indicates the strong...

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WASHINGTON — Once, it was enough just to unwrap a bar of chocolate and eat it. Now, you must understand it.

Note the glossy shine that indicates the strong bond between the cocoa butter and the cocoa mass, instruct the makers of Vosges Haut Chocolat on the packaging of their Barcelona Bars. Release its complex aromas by rubbing your thumb across the top, and savor the smell. Only then should you finally taste it, feeling the chocolate melt around your tongue.

Like coffee before it, chocolate is going complex and upscale. This holiday season, look for Tasmanian honey wrapped in dark chocolate from Godiva and custom-made boxes tied with double-faced satin ribbon at exclusive Manhattan specialty store Bergdorf Goodman. Christmas is the peak time for premium chocolate sales, and big candy companies and small chocolatiers alike are rolling out some of their most high-end products to date.

“Chocolate is not always about eating,” said Laure de Montebello, co-owner and chef of Sans Souci Gourmet Confections, an independent chocolate shop in New York that fills those custom-made boxes at Bergdorf’s with peppermint truffles. “Chocolate is a ‘feel’ business.”


Dilettante Chocolates, Seattle

Truffles are $1.25 apiece or $38 for a one-pound box

The assortment, made with butter and cream, includes truffles with such inspired names as Madame X and Champagne Truffle Romanov (the owner’s grand uncle was once master confectioner to the Czar of Russia), plus its two mainstays — Dark Ephemere and Light Ephemere.

Fran’s Chocolates, Seattle

At $56 a pound, truffles average $1.12 apiece, caramels $1.40

Assorted chocolates include Fran’s buttery caramels, hand-dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast; a bittersweet Oolong Tea truffle topped with blue cornflower garnish; and another dark-chocolate truffle, this one with a barrel-aged Single Malt Whiskey center.

Godiva Chocolatier,

New York

New Platinum Collection, 16-pieces, $25

Introduced in September, this new generation of chocolates takes its cues from the fashion world. Razabelle — raspberry layered over vanilla caramel and dipped in dark chocolate — comes with tiny G’s emblazoned on its shell, reminiscent of luxury handbags. Gingevere — milk-chocolate ganache with a touch of spicy ginger — carries a muted, Asian-inspired pattern.

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, Berkeley

70% Bittersweet home baking bar, $10.99

The “70%” here indicates the weight of the combined cacao bean and cocoa butter content in the chocolate. Name aside, a baking bar made from high-grade chocolate should be enjoyable straight out of the wrapper.

Monica Soto Ouchi, Seattle Times staff reporter

That may be why readers of December’s Vogue opened the magazine to find a gorgeous model giving a come-hither look — to a piece of Godiva chocolate. Godiva wants customers to feel like divas, a play on the company’s name and the focus of an advertising campaign that began last year targeting women ages 25 to 40. That demographic is the most likely to buy chocolate, consuming roughly eight servings each month, according to a report on premium chocolate by consumer-research firm Mintel.

To help entice them, Godiva has introduced a line of “platinum” chocolate this year to go along with the new ads. The assortments sell for between $8 and $80 and draw their inspiration from fashion — think mousse fillings as airy as chiffon, spokesmen say. Godiva also brought back its “ultra-premium” G Collection last week. At $120 per pound, it is the company’s most expensive line ever.

Even mass marketers such as Hershey are making moves into the premium arena. This summer, the company created a division called Artisan Confection and bought two gourmet chocolatiers, Joseph Schmidt Confections and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. And Russell Stover recently launched its own line of premium chocolates. Dubbed the Private Reserve line, advertisements for it trumpet “elegant sculptures” of milk chocolate and dark chocolate made of up to 70 percent cacao.

Sweet pick-me-up

At a Godiva shop in suburban Virginia, employee Maria Forselet was interrupted on a recent Friday by three women loaded with shopping bags and looking exhausted. They were looking for sweet pick-me-ups, preferably with caramel, before calling it a day.

“People who want to take a moment out and truly self-indulge want to do it in a way that’s elevated,” said Sharon Rothstein, vice president for global marketing and merchandise for Godiva.

Call it the Starbucks effect. The ubiquitous retailer introduced the word “barista” into the national lexicon and raised the bar for what customers would pay for gourmet coffee. Why shouldn’t consumers do the same for a Michel Cluizel chocolate bar in which all the beans were picked at a single plantation in Madagascar?

That philosophy is changing the way chocolate is marketed and consumed. It starts with bars of premium chocolate — such as Vosges’ Barcelona Bar made with sea salt and roasted almonds — that sell for about $6. Then there are the boutique chocolate shops that will sell their wares by the piece when you just need a quick fix.

At Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolates, budding connoisseurs pay $56 a pound for delectable morsels like her buttery caramels, hand-dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast.

Other concoctions include a dark chocolate truffle infused with Northwest, barrel-aged Single Malt Whiskey and a bittersweet Oolong Tea truffle topped with blue cornflower garnish.

Fran Bigelow, owner and chocolatier, said the emergence of artisan chocolate is part of a larger evolution of food. (It’s not enough to know where their food comes from, consumers want to cross-examine it.)

“They want the pedigree,” Bigelow said. “They want to know this is over 60 percent dark chocolate.”

For special occasions, there is the $200 box of truffles from Godiva encased in Ultrasuede and adorned with Swarovski crystal.

Sales of premium chocolate last year were estimated to total $1.56 billion, according to the Mintel report. But most of those sales did not take place in traditional candy outlets such as drugstores.

Increasingly, consumers are buying chocolate at department stores, gourmet food retailers and chocolate shops — and not just during the holidays.

Seattle-based Dilettante Chocolates this year opened several chocolate bars — stores, not snacks — in the Seattle area, where customers pick the type of chocolate they’d like melted into their mochas. Dilettante’s revenues have tripled since 2003.

Chocolate facts

$1.5 billion: Estimated sales of premium chocolates in 2004

62 percent say gourmet chocolates are a treat you don’t have to feel bad about eating.

38 percent of all adults buy gourmet chocolates as a treat for themselves, but more than half of 18- to 34-year-olds say they do.

81 percent of adults who buy chocolates say taste is extremely important.

Source: Premium Chocolate Confectionery 2005 U.S. Report by Mintel

Owner and Chocolatier Dana Davenport recommends to customers this ideal afternoon snack: a small glass of Port (it sells dessert wines at its Westlake Center location) and one truffle, followed by a shot of straight, black espresso.

“It’s delightful, it’s intense, it’s sensuous and it makes your day for about an hour,” Davenport said. “You go on and deal with the rest of the world.”

Mars, best known for candies such as M&M’s and Snickers, has developed a “chocolate lounge” to showcase its new line of gourmet confections.

“Traditionally, when consumers think about chocolate, they think of special occasions,” said John Haugh, president of gourmet chocolate and retail for a division of Mars. The lounges are designed to bring “premium chocolate into an everyday experience.”

Premium preferred

Last year, almost 65 percent of those surveyed in the Mintel report said that they would rather have a little bit of premium chocolate than a lot of so-so chocolate. To her customers, Leiberman said, the right chocolate in the proper packaging feels more like a fashion accessory than a threat to their waistlines.

Dark chocolate in particular has been touted lately for the potential health benefits from the antioxidants and flavanols in the cocoa bean. Could chocolate become the next red wine?

Industry analysts and chocolate experts certainly hope so.

“Chocolate’s trying to make a move from being a commodity … to something a little more like wine,” said John Coleman, a buyer for grocer Balducci’s. “That way, it’s quality-driven.”

But he cautioned not to overthink it. After all, chocolate is still first and foremost a comfort food.

“You don’t want it to get too mystified by all the terms and everything,” Coleman said. “You taste it. Do you like it? Good.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Monica Soto Ouchi contributed to this report.