The Wine & Spirits inbox has swelled in recent weeks with enticements from alcohol merchants attempting to leverage Valentine's Day to drive sales. There are many ways to say I love you, but apparently just as many to say, "I want to get you drunk." Pink wines for your Valentine, neon cocktails for your radiant love, icewine for chocolate – that sort of thing. Funny, it's the day of passion and seductive dining, and all I get is cold spam.
Some of the suggestions are a bit of stretch, I might add. As in: Brunello di Montalcino (it ages gracefully, like your relationship); cabernet sauvignon (chock full of aphrodisiac notes like "plum, warm spice and vanilla"). One brand of low-calorie flavoured vodka is plugging "skinny" cocktails for the big day. To which I might add: Is there a less-romantic message than implying that your Valentine could stand to shed a few pounds?
But enough cynicism. You're in love, or hope to be. Far be it from me to pour ice water on the day of wine and roses. As many of you will be dining out rather than looking for bottles to lavish as gifts, I have several suggestions on that score. And I guarantee these meditations come straight from the heart, not the promotional literature of any alcohol purveyor.
The colour is a Valentine cliché, but I happen to like many pink drinks. There are ways to work with the hue while steering clear of cloying neon cocktails. Campari and soda is a splendid start to a meal. Bitter-sweet, glowing-red Campari liqueur from Italy stimulates the palate while channelling your inner Latin lover. Aperol, a pink-orange aperitivo, is similarly glorious with soda or on the rocks with an orange slice.
No matter how perfunctory the occasion can be for a marriage with mileage, consider ordering a glass, if not a bottle. Luxe bubbles might even manage to distract you from the fact you're missing Glee on Fox at 8 p.m. It need not be true-blue Champagne, just good stuff, such as Segura Viudas from Spain, Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay from British Columbia, Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine from Niagara or any "cremant" from France. Order it before the meal, not with dessert, a fatal collision for dry sparkling wine. At home, you might want to infuse it with half an ounce of sweet cassis liqueur for a kir royale cocktail. If mixed properly, the shade will match the cheeks on Caravaggio's depiction of Cupid in Amor Vincit Omnia. Translation: love conquers all.
Think of France's light, fruity red as a white wine in disguise. Based on the crisp, low-tannin gamay grape, it pairs reasonably well with fish as well as many vegetarian and meat courses. The last thing you want on Feb. 14 is a sparring match over the wine list should your Valentine order salmon while you opt for steak. Best of all (and this could be your personal secret), Beaujolais is the great unsung bargain on any wine list. Ask for a 2009, if available; it was a superb vintage. The sommelier will commend your discernment, and this is the day you want that to happen.
The popular white wine tends to go by other identities in France, where vineyard location takes precedence over grape names. The most relevant alias for Feb. 14 is Chablis, a northern district of Burgundy that specializes in crisp, mineral-laden chardonnays ideal for raw oysters. Lean white muscadet, made from the melon de Bourgogne grape near the French oyster capital of Brittany, is the bargain alternative. Fuller-bodied, buttery New World chardonnays can be romantic, too, if deftly paired with popcorn and a stay-in movie.
Your best video options: Before Sunrise or its equally good sequel, Before Sunset, starring Ethan Hawke and French lovely Julie Delpy. If any movie can, either of these one-day-love-affair gems will convert your Neanderthal tough guy into a Kleenex-hogging hugmuffin, especially after enough chardonnay.
Cognac or Armagnac
France's two great brandies trump all other post-prandial drinks in the sophistication department. For chocolate, the tongue-tingling oak supplies a better counterpoint, I think, than sweet wine, whose fruitiness and sugar can steal the show. (No bona fide chocolate lover wants that fate to befall the almighty cocoa bean.) Warm, velvety and brimming with richer aphrodisiac notes of spice and vanilla than most cabernets, good brandy will put natural blush in your cheeks after the fake stuff wears off by evening's end. Plus, brandy snifters are less precarious in the bedroom than wine stemware.