V is for Valentine—and Vino

Ways to Woo with Wine

    Flowers are nice, and candy is dandy, but wine is mighty fine when we’re talking about your valentine. So how do we come up with the perfect vinous gift or create a great meal pairing for the Valentine’s Day dinner? One sure-fire winner is turning up with a bottle of your significant other’s personal favorite wine from the past year or two. Another is re-creating a special moment that involved a shared bottle of fine wine. But if we have no longtime favorites or standout historical markers to go by, a good bottle of bubbly is a great place to start.
    Sparkling wines come in many shapes and sizes, and are produced using numerous methods. You probably want to avoid less expensive Charmat-process bubblies, which are produced from cheap wine in a big tank and bottled with carbon dioxide still in the wine. They tend to be the instigators of hangovers and headaches and generally need an Excedrin chaser. I remember a great evening in Montana many years ago spent listening to Gordon Lightfoot and sipping cheap bubbly; I paid for it dearly the next day when I was told at six in the morning that I had to administer pregnancy tests to 300 head of cattle.
    The classic way to produce great sparking wine is méthode champenoise. This starts with quality grapes, usually grown in a cool climate, picked at a fairly low sugar level. The resulting wine, often Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or combinations thereof, is given a small dose of sugar and some fresh yeast and put in a sparkling-wine bottle. The yeast ferments the sugar and creates the bubbles. The trick then is to spin or “riddle” the bottle so the yeast winds up in the neck with the bottle upside down. The next step is called disgorging: The neck and yeast are frozen, the bottle turned right-side up and the cap removed. In a short time all the yeast blows out of the bottle and a new cap is applied. This process takes some time and produces a sparkling wine with lots of character.
    The most famous sparkling wines are produced in a small Northern region of France called (guess what?) Champagne. Some of my favorites include Veuve Clicquot, Billecart-Salmon and, if money is no object, Dom Pérignon. Of course, California has its own excellent sparkling-wine producers, the best of whom use the méthode champenoise to create some very tasty bubblers. Some great ones to try are Roederer Brut, Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir and J (from Judy Jordan’s J Vineyards & Winery).
    Now, assuming we have gotten the evening off to a good start with the sparkling wine, what are some other festive bottles to look for? Your choice may depend
upon whether you’re planning to serve  salmon filets or chiles rellenos. For a light red, you might try a French Beaujolais Nouveau, a very fruit-driven wine freshly bottled just after harvest. A nice Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley or Russian River Valley is always a good choice. If you want something a little meatier, or just a dramatically contrasting red wine for the next course, a spicy Zinfandel or a smoky Syrah from Paso Robles or Sonoma would fill the bill.
    No Valentine’s Day dinner would be complete without finishing up with a great dessert wine. If you’re having crème brûlée, a sweet white wine from botrytised (or “nobly rotten”) grapes, such as a French Sauterne or Barsac, can be the perfect partner. A cherry torte would pair well with an Australian “stickie” (the Aussie term for dessert wine) such as Rutherglen Tawny Muscat. And if the evening calls for chocolate, the chocolate calls for a nice vintage Port. If I can toot our own horn here, however, Rosenblum Cellars’ Désirée is a chocolate-infused Port-style wine that is almost a dessert by itself, conceivably allowing you to save on the calories packed into that chocolate mousse.
—By Kent Rosenblum

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