The Boston Phoenix
February 10 - 17, 2000


| by restaurant | by cuisine | by location | hot links | food home |
| dining out archive | on the cheap archive | noshing & sipping archive | uncorked archive |


Finding the perfect wine for the perfect date

by Thor Iverson

It's the perfect setting for romance: a candlelit table for two, soft music in the background, glasses of delicate fizz to drink while you peruse the menu, holding hands under the table. Valentine's Day is one of the two busiest days of the year for restaurants because so many people are searching for this exact experience.

But if you've ever been to a restaurant on Valentine's Day, you know that the scene is actually very different: noisy restaurants, cranky staff (made that way by the abusive demands of belligerent guys trying to "impress" their dates), and a cattle-call system that pushes you through your dinner as quickly as possible. This is why a lot of people choose to dine where they can control the environment: at home.

Depending on one's culinary abilities, this could mean eating anything from a hot-dog casserole to a 10-course French extravaganza. But regardless of the food, one choice is always important: the wine. People want to have a special bottle on Valentine's Day, sometimes even an unforgettable one. Or they want something that lends some romance of its own to the proceedings. But finding a special bottle isn't always easy, and even unquestionably great wines can be disappointing under certain circumstances. Here, then, is a brief guide to reliable Valentine vino.

Champagne is the classic tipple of love, especially pink Champagne. But the best rosé Champagnes are expensive (though they're a little less so since that "millennium shortage" fiasco) and sometimes hard to find. If money is no object, go for the best: Krug Rosé, which will run you well into three figures if you can find it. Another, and much less expensive, option is Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($38), one of the best values from this region. Those on a budget will want to seek out a sparkling wine from another area, like California. The Roederer Estate Brut Rosé Anderson Valley ($24) is one of the best domestic sparklers.

Red Burgundy has, for centuries, been associated with sensuality and romance, qualities that are inherent in the best wines of the region. There is something almost unbelievably sexy about the aroma of an aged Burgundy, and when it's paired with the right food (a simple duck breast, for example, or sautéed mushrooms), the flavor is extraordinary.

But aged red Burgundy is an expensive proposition. If it's more than 10 years old and less than $70, I'd question its quality and authenticity. Thankfully, Burgundy has developed a weird price dichotomy: old bottles haven't been subjected to the same price insanity that afflicts newer vintages, so buying older bottles can be, comparatively, a better deal. The one real danger (aside from going broke buying the stuff) is the fragility of old Burgundy; if you decide to take the plunge, make sure you have a back-up bottle.

Most of the bigger stores carry some older red Burgundies, usually in their "reserve" racks (or temperature-controlled rooms). And you should definitely get advice from the store's wine manager on which ones are likely to be full of life, rather than over the hill. Look for classic, reliable names such as Drouhin, Jadot, or Faiveley. Not only are these bottles more likely to be recent releases (which means they're less likely to be heat-damaged from extended stays in poor store conditions), but they're also fairly easy to find. Wines from smaller growers such as Lafon, Roumier, Jayer, and others can be even better, but harder to track down. Avoid older Bouchard Père & Fils wines; they're making fantastic stuff now, but had a real slump for the previous few decades.

Top Burgundies, known as grand cru wines, will cost you more than $100, but some bottlings one level down (premier cru) can be had for less than that. To minimize the risk of a bad bottle but still get nice aged characteristics, look for something from the '80s. And if you really want something extraordinary, go for a '69. (Feel free to joke, but 1969 was a killer year in Burgundy.) For your back-up bottle -- or if you're on a Burgundy budget -- select something younger, like the '96 Bouchard Ainé & Fils Gevrey-Chambertin ($32).

There's an alternative to all these big-ticket wines, and that's to open something big and lusty, something that makes you want to rip off your clothes and dance naked by the fire. (Please close the curtains first.) Australian shiraz could fit that bill. Ask your retailer if he or she can get any of the wines offered by the Grateful Palate, a mail-order source for fine foods and wines (you can browse them yourself at Availability is extremely limited, so I'm hesitant to recommend a particular producer.

But the best choice is probably red zinfandel. Deep, dark, spicy, fruity, explosive . . . there's nothing like good zinfandel. The cream of the zinfandel crop is actually only just more than half zinfandel: Ridge Geyserville. In a great stroke of luck for zin lovers, there are some older bottles floating around town (like the '91, which should retail for around $50); this is one of the few zins that benefits from a little age. Otherwise, just remember the "R" rule: producers with a single name that begins with "R" make great zin. That means you can't go wrong with wines from Ridge, Rosenblum, Ravenswood, or Renwood, but you can strike out with the often over-oaked Rabbit Ridge wines (two "R" words, you see). Other great zinfandel producers include Dashe, Storrs, Swan, and Storybrook.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

The Uncorked archive