It’s that time of year again: Valentine's Day, a time for going out (… or staying in) with your special someone in the hopes that the evening will end with an a-ha moment of re-discovered passion.
While some will go out for a rushed, aphrodisiac themed prix-fixe menu, others will plan an evening at home, where you’ll no doubt serve an aphrodisiac-themed menu. If you are planning any of the following: oysters on the half shell, surf and turf with live lobster and filet mignon or dipped strawberries and chocolate body paint, then you’ll want to be sure you’re picking the right beverage to compliment the sexy occasion.
Here are some guidelines to pairing wine to some of the most cliché Valentine’s Day dishes:
Oysters on the half shell:
Look for a Muscadet. Not to be confused with muscat (grape), Muscadet is a wine that usually comes in a tall, skinny bottle, like a Riesling. Rather than being aromatic however, this is a crisp, mineral-driven white wine from France’s western Loir valley made from a grape called melon de Bourgogne. It’s notes of stone, citrus zest, and sea spray makes this the natural paring for oysters by bringing out their fresh ocean flavors.
Lobster with butter:
Grab a Napa chardonnay. No kidding. Many people are starting to push away from the overly oaked, super buttery chardonnays of Napa (deeming them to be manipulated, dull and déclassé), but the simple truth of the matter is that there are wines for every occasion, and the delicate sweet ocean flavors of lobster dipped in the succulent richness of melted butter is the perfect match for a big, rich, buttery glass of a chardonnay from right here in California. It's a wine style affectionately known as: “cougar juice.”
The extra richness of a round chardonnay has enough weight to cut through the butter, but it isn’t so overpowering that you can’t taste the lobster. Tropical notes of coconut, vanilla, pineapple and mango in the wine combine with the sweet ocean brine of a perfectly cooked lobster, and then when you add the decadence of warm, melted butter, the result is the very definition of umami. A savory, third layer of flavor is created that can only be expressed with a knowing glance of someone else experiencing the same sensation.
For the turf side of the famous meat-and-seafood dish, while a big chardonnay might be enough to stand up to a delicate cut of beef, if the filet alone is your entrée then you might want to consider a left-bank Bordeaux.
The region of Bordeaux is broken up into two sides separated by the Gironde River. The on the left side of the river the wines are dominant in cabernet sauvignon. On the right side the wines are dominant in merlot and cab franc. A blend of up to five grapes, those grapes always being: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, Bordeaux wines aren’t the same as the rich, more fruit forward “cocktail” wines of California.
While there’s nothing wrong with Napa cabs, the amount of up-front fruit in a typical representation of Napa is sometimes too much for a more delicate cut of beef. By selecting a bottle Bordeaux you’re going to taste the filet. The wine will be a secondary flavor enhancing the char on the beef and the succulence of the meat.
Chocolate with (or without) Strawberries:
Chocolate always seems to be the dessert of choice to end the Valentine’s Day meal. Sometimes warmed chocolate is cooled onto strawberries. Sometimes it appears as a mousse, or a cake, or ice cream. Lets face it: the versatility of chocolate is considered more on Valentine’s Day than any other day of the year. And bubbles are a great match for chocolate, with or without fruit involved in the mix. If you’re an extra dark chocolate fan, however, consider port to end the meal.
The difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate is the presence of sugar and cocoa butter, leaving the bitter dark chocolate to sometimes seem texturally waxy on the palate. By sipping port you’re adding in the flavors of fruit, and perception of sweetness back in, but the sweetness more softens the texture without taking away from the bitter flavor of the chocolate that so many of us love.
Port is a fortified wine, meaning that alcohol is added to the fermenting grape juice before the juice completely turns into wine, giving it an alcohol level between 17% and 20% ABV. A ruby port, meaning a young port that hasn’t had too much time to age, is going to be the most fruit-forward and probably the most commonly found. Ruby port is what you think of when most people think of port: ruby red, sweet and sticky. Tawny port, however, is port that has been aged in oak barrels exposing the wine to oxygen and causing the deep purple or red colors to fade into more of a brown. The oxygen also changes the flavor, removing a lot of the ripe berry notes and replacing them with more savory, nutty flavors.
If in doubt, bourbon is always the perfect complement to chocolate in any form. As both Ogden Nash and Willie Wonka have reminded us: "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker."
How to Choose Bubbles For Every Kind of Meal (aka Bubbles 101):
Sparkling wine is always going to play a big role in Valentine's Day celebrations, and it's always a great way to start. Not only because it’s a gets your taste buds going and wakes up your palate, but because it’s completely versatile and can compliment anything from a light salad, to oysters, to lobster dipped in butter, or even chocolate-dipped strawberries.
When considering a sparkling wine, like Champagne, keep in mind that you’re looking for brut. Knowing how to read the labels can make all the difference in the world. Nothing can ruin oysters faster than a sweet sparkling wine. Dry refers to the amount of residual sugar in the bottle, or the sweetness level, and that level is indicated on the front of the bottle by the word “brut.” Brut is dry (less than 12 grams of sugar per liter). If you want your bubbles to be super crisp, look for a label that reads “extra brut” (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter).
Here’s where it gets confusing: Some bottles have “Extra Dry” written on the label. Extra dry does not mean more dry. In fact, it means the opposite. From dry to sweet in grams of residual sugar per liter, here’s what to look for:
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Extra Brut (also seen as Brut Natural): less than 6 grams.
Brut: Less than twelve.
Extra Dry (sometimes seen as extra sec): 12 to 17.
Sec: 17 to 32.
Demi Sec: 32 to 50.
Doux: 50 grams and up. (sweet!)
Keep in mind that each producer has a particular house style; so brut from one producer might be slightly more perceptibly sweet than a brut from a different producer, but that sweetness will be so subtle that you’ll only detect the flavor in ranges of fruit. For example: instead of the wine tasting chalky, it might taste like green apple peel.
Matt Miller is a freelance writer and wine specialist with certifications from SWE, CMS, WSET. You can follow his wine choices on Delectable & his tweets at @lawinewriter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.