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For me Valentine’s Day is all about what I’m going to drink–not so much where I’m going to be drinking it.  OK, who I’m drinking it with is a factor, but I’m willing to drink something I like with a less-than-stellar date than vice-versa.  I guess I’ve always bought into the whole consumer indulgence regarding Valentine’s Day due to the fact that it always seems to fall around a time when I’m feeling a little burned out.  For example, flu season is always at its peak around Valentine’s Day, and I’ve suffered a few drinkless, not to mention dateless, evenings at home, watching Arrested Development on DVD while trying to swallow huge antibiotics.  What I miss most during those times, much to the enjoyment of friends who think I should join AA, is the wine. I can live without steak, chocolate, a card–hell, even a date–on Valentine’s Day, but I’m not quite feeling the romance without a good bottle of wine.  I know enough about wines to never feel out of place ordering for a large table in just about any restaurant; moreover, I can find something I like about any wine.  However, I’ve learned that most people don’t enjoy choosing wines, and I happen to have dated a large majority of those people.  I tried to never act let down when my date brought a sickly sweet bottle of Cook’s Spumante because the guy at the liquor store said that’s what his girlfriend drinks, or when my girlfriends decided that Cupcake sauvignon blanc had such a cute label, and after all, we were eating cupcakes later–but come on!  There’s an art to selecting the right bottle of wine for Valentine’s Day, be it a night at home making sweet love to your spouse, or a night griping about love and watching chick flicks with the girls.  If you find yourself wondering what type of wine to buy for Valentine’s Day, look no further than my following tips!


TIP #1: Sparkling Wine Never Fails

Sparkling wine goes with anything!  It’s so popular and so requested because it’s so versatile.  Sparkling wine tastes fantastic alone, with clams, with asparagus, with quail, with rhubarb pie; honestly, it doesn’t matter.  Yes, you can get into some trouble regarding the dryness or sweetness of sparkling wines, but if you have an idea of what you, or the person you’re buying the wine to drink with, like then you’ll never go wrong with the right type of sparkling wine.

First, you don’t have to buy Champagne.  No, even though some wines say they’re “California Champagne,” no sparkling wine is champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France.  The wine is named for the region, not the type of wine.  Some popular brands of Champagne are Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roderer, and Moet and Chandon.  Champagnes are usually made from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Petit Meunier grapes, although some other varietals are occasionally used.  If you buy sparkling wines in general, you could be drinking any number of varietals depending on the country and region the wine comes from, although most California or U.S. sparkling wines usually try to mimic the flavor of champagnes and use similar grapes.  Most people assume since champagne is white that it must only use chardonnay grapes, or white grapes, but pinot noir grapes are traditionally used, however the grape skins are not left on to allow the rosy color to form.  

If you want a high quality sparkling wine that taste just as good as champagne but costs a fraction of the price, you should buy a sparkling wine from Burgundy, France.  These will sometimes be labeled by the name “Bourgogne.”  These typically costs around $15-$20 a bottle and will fool most knowledgable drinkers into thinking they are drinking a $50 of champagne.  These wines come from a region near Champagne, a region that is known for producing the world’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir–the two favorite varietals used in Champagne.  These wines are made the exact same way as Champagne, but because the region is different, you pay a fraction of the price!

You need to choose a sweetness profile for any sparkling wine, so decide what profile you would like.  Sparkling wines will be labeled according to the amount of dosage placed into the bottle right before corking.  The more dosage, the more sweet the sparkling wine.  “Naturale” champagnes contain no dosage, and are, therefore, very bitter.  But, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “natural” outside of Europe.  Here are the labels according to taste from the bitter to sweet.

  • Brut – will usually have “toasty” flavors and hints of “metallic” or bitter finishes
  • Extra Dry – not as dry as a Brut, meaning more “green apple” and “raspberry” notes.
  • Demi-Sec – starting to finish sweet, but losing the “butter” and “toast”
  • Sec – hard to find now unless a sparkling riesling; sweet notes of “honeysuckle” and “spice”

You may read these and think, Demi-Sec for sure, but while Brut does mean a more bitter taste, it also brings a nice yeasty / butter quality that you will lose to a more round fruit flavor the sweeter you go.  Extra-Dry is always a safe bet.  I love bringing a sparkling Burgundy Extra Dry wine to parties and for gifts because it’ll have the hints of butter and green apple of a Brut, but it will finish smoother.

The standard Brut or Extra Dry Burgundy sparkling wine goes great with appetizers, like rosemary crackers with green apple slices, honeycomb, and nutty dry cheeses, or main dishes like roast chicken with vegetables.  If you want to try these wines with dessert, why not try grand mariner creme brûlée or apple pie?  These wines have a crisp profile so they round out and compliment a savory meal that isn’t too spicy or sweet.  Of course, they’re fantastic on their own, and nothing says intimate like a bottle of bubbly!


TIP #2 Sparkling Comes in Pink and Red Too

Remember how I said Champagne uses pinot noir grapes but doesn’t allow the skins to color the wine?  Well, one of the many reasons I love the French is because they find a way to try everything.  So, sometimes those winemakers in Champagne use only pinot noir grapes to make their sparkling wines and allow the skins to sit on the grapes for just a few days, just to give it the most lovely pink glow.  That’s what pink champagne is: pinot noir sparkling wine!  So, when Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr are running into each other on their cruise in the film An Affair to Remember, this is what they keep ordering.  It’s not merely champagne, or just sparkling wine; it has a different flavor profile.  The lack of chardonnay, sometimes they do put some in, means that you get more “berry” flavors and less “apple.”  Also, since the chardonnay grape is the one that really lends that “metallic,” bitter taste, you mostly get a rounder flavor profile.  So, if you want to bask in the glow of a pink champagne on Valentine’s Day, you should try a Burgundy Rose sparkling wine.  After all, Burgundy grows the best Pinot Noir grapes, and you’ll be paying far less than a true Champagne.  These wines are fantastic with turkey, quail, duck, and pork (not great for steaks, though) and usually have hints of “citrus” and “strawberry,” making a great pairing with any cakes.  

I love to drink sparkling roses before meals or before rich desserts because they always seem to refresh your senses.  If you’re dating a lover of Pinot Noir, which seems to be every person who saw Sideways nowadays, why not surprise them with a special bottle of Burgundy sparkling rose?    After all, you could drink the bottle while watching An Affair to Remember?  

If you want a deeply sweet sparkling wine to go with the chocolate lava cake or brownie, try a brachetto d’aqui, which is a type of Italian red sparkling wine.  Brachetto d’acqui is made from the brachetto grape, an Italian grape that produces a sweeter red juice.  This will have more sweetness than a demi-sec and sec champagne and more fruit flavor than a sparkling rose wine. Brachetto d’aqcui has a deep “strawberry,” “cherry” flavor and a deep red color to match.  It looks lovely in a glass next to anything sweet on Valentine’s Day, and it usually costs around $12 a bottle.  If the wine is labeled “frizzante,” you will be drinking a semi-sparkling wine and you will have to pull that cork rather than pop it.  If the wine is labeled “spumante,” then you’ll be poping the cork and drinking a full-on sparkling wine.  For some reason, U.S. wine customers have come to expect that Spumante means sweet, probably thanks to Cook’s and J Roget’s labeled Spumante.  The term Spumante actually just means “fully sparkling.”  If you know your date has a sweet spot for sweet wine (moscato, anyone?) try a brachetto to spice and deepen things up.  You can even tell your date that Julius Caesar is said to have gifted Cleopatra with a similar wine.


TIP #3: Get Your Chocolate Covered Cherries in Your Wine

Speaking of Sideways, that film ruined the image of merlot, a lovely grape.  I’ve always quite liked merlot for the reason that merlot can be anything you want, meaning if you don’t oak merlot, you’ll get a very tart, juicy wine, but if you oak merlot, you’ll get a nice woodsy, tannic, deep flavor.  Merlot is fantastic for Valentine’s Day, and if you’re going the traditional red meat route, you’ll find a great value in the right merlot.  Of course, the french do merlot well in Saint Emilion, for example, but for Valentine’s Day I like a great Washington State merlot.  I think the cooler climate really makes those blackberry and dark cherry flavors pop out in the wines.  Some of the best merlots for Valentine’s Day are coming from the Columbia River Valley, specifically Yakima Valley.  I love those wines for Valentine’s Day because you’ll pay less than a comparable Merlot from Sonoma or Napa, and the fruit profiles tend to develop a nice chocolate-covered cherry flavor instead of a woodsy, boysenberry flavor that is more common in Napa.

Some of my favorite Washington State Columbia River Valley merlots are Bridgeman and Stevens Winery.  These merlots can vary in price from $15-$40 and offer fantastic chocolate finishes coupled with deep cheery flavors.  I’m a sucker for any wine that gives me notes of chocolate for under $50.  With these merlots, the more expensive you go, the more woodsy character you’ll encounter.  So, if you just want cherry, stick to the $14 end; but if you want cedar and heavy chocolate, head towards the $40.  However,any Yakima Valley merlot will head you in the right direction for Valentine’s Day in a bottle.

I hope that you find the perfect wine to share, or not to share, this Valentine’s Day.  Since Valentine’s Day falls on a Thursday this year, I’m teaching 5 classes at my university while working a 12 hour day and driving a 3 hour commute.  So, you can bet that when I get home I’ll be enjoying a trifecta of wine.  I plan to start with a nice brut sparkling Burgundy, follow up with a glass of Bridgman merlot during my crock pot dinner, and finish with a glass of Louis Bouillot Rose for dessert.  Now I just have to figure out how to find someone to have all this waiting for me!