Choosing a special wine for your Valentine

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad," said Madame Bollinger, one of the grande dames of Champagne. "Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it unless I'm thirsty."

Valentine's Day is one of the new year's most joyous and because so much emphasis is on this day, many view the entire month of February as an extended celebration of love. And why not? Life can get a little bleak this time of year and nothing conquers those cold weather blues like love. But, if you enhance love a little, there are according to many poets and composers, some advantages. It's true what the Beatles' proclaimed: All you need is love. But think about adding in a bottle of Champagne or Saint-Amour, a dozen long-stemmed red roses, a gourmet dinner and other thoughtful gestures for good measure.

To celebrate and honor love, nothing could be more inappropriate than cheap wine whether as a gift or for serving at dinner. It smells really bad, tastes terrible and many wine drinkers when they see the label have seen it on the grocery store bottom shelf. A close second for a certain disaster is one of those highly alcoholic, concentrated fruit-bombs that suggest a track meet rather than satin sheets. When you think about it, great wine, thoughtfully selected and served with gourmet food, is a variation on foreplay.

Avoid the bombast that comes with thinking only about yourself. A few hours later, you may be richly rewarded.

Red wine for February

At the northern limit of the Burgundy's Beaujolais lies the romantically named Cru of Saint-Amour. The name is derived from Saint Amateur, once a Roman soldier who founded a monastery overlooking the river Sone. Today, much is made of the name, and the wines with this name are universally associated with St. Valentine's Day. Like a beautiful woman, Saint-Amour can sometimes be a little reserved needing some time to open up and dispel the mystery. Saint-Amour cellars well and after a year or so, can become supple and fruity, with flavors of apricot, cherries, sometimes spicy, and with great intensity of color.

First things first. You love someone and the wine should unequivocally say that. Saint-Amour, light, fruity and just wonderful has the right label, perfect name and goes with almost anything. No gimmicks or marketing ploy here, just the real deal from France. I've always believed if you gave a lover a bottle of Saint-Amour as part of a Valentine's Day remembrance, they would store the empty bottle somewhere. It's very affordable, but difficult to find. Atlanta-based Sherlock's wine stores have it under the prestigious JSanders label, but it sells out immediately. Don't look for it on any restaurant wine menus: history says it will be absent.

Inexplicably, far too many restaurants in the South still have a predominantly awkward wine selection that doesn't display the imagination and relevance you expect to be offered during those special times of year. I have become so used to this pattern of ordinariness (average, mediocre, trendy and too often overpriced) that I can almost predict the featured wines at most restaurants. Wines like Saint-Amour are easily obtainable and I'm beginning to suspect that if a restaurant hasn't invested in a sommelier or genuine wine director, then it's possible they haven't heard of them.

Bubbles are special

Never a problem for me. It's Champagne. And if you want to be even more original, make it ros Champagne. Try as hard as they have, but sparkling wine (and much of the higher end labels are very good) isn't the same. Champagne has legend, taste, pedigree, breeding and the most beautiful name of any alcoholic beverage. Champagne is very intimate and when you give or pour it, it requires no explanation. Both of you know that great things should be just a few moments away. This noble beverage hails from the area around Rhiems, near where Joan of Arc was born and has all the legend of Dom Perignon, a monk, and the divine Madame Bollinger associated with it.

The fact it is French also says loads about the romance of Champagne. It retains its femininity yet has always been popular with men, particularly men of power. Query: What wine is used to christen a new battleship? What is poured to salute the new born? What do we quaff during the first moments of the New Year? Well, you get the idea.

Getting to know the nomenclature of the Champagne region and the basics of how it is produced can make selection as important as appreciation. The process for producing a bottle of Champagne is rather involved and once you know about the steps, the respect for what's in the flute really increases.

No barware please

A crystal wine glass or Champagne flute is as different from thick, translucent and dishwasher-tainted barware as a silk purse from a sow's ear. The investment in quality crystal stemware is reasonable and worth every penny. Why would anyone knowingly purchase a bottle of anything more than $25 and pour it into wine glasses that can be bought at wholesale for less than a quarter?

And the next time you order wine at a good restaurant, caution the waiter to pick out appropriate crystal stemware that hasn't just been removed from the dishwasher. (You can bet the bank that Riedel stemware has not been run through the dishwasher and when your wine is poured into a Riedel wine glass, there will be no hint of detergent.)

Like romance, little things mean a lot in wine enjoyment. The overall environment-soft beauty-is a vital part of the process and you ignore the special touches at your own risk. The path can be precarious, but I think it's really worth the effort. Remember the ancient maxim for lovers: Never throw cold water on a raging inferno.


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