Wines of the Month

February, 2000

Cheap Date

Ah, February. For many people, that means Valentine's Day -- a holiday of cards, flowers, candy, fancy dinners, and afterwards, an empty wallet.

But what if you want to create a special occasion without blowing your budget? After all, some of us are still feeling the post-holiday pinch. An affordable option is to create a great dinner at home. And anyone who is reading this page probably agrees that a great dinner should include wine. Unfortuntately, when you try to find a wine for a romantic dinner, you're likely to find people extolling the romance of Roederer Cristal or other pricey vintage Champagnes. Fortunately, the world of wine is diverse enough that you can find affordable wines that will still make any day seem special, as long as you know where to look.

When many people think "special," they're really thinking "bubbles." For some reason, sparkling wine means "celebration" to many people, in a way that no other wine really matches. Of course, I could be cynical and blame the marketers, but that's a matter for another column. When most people think of sparkling wine, they think of the most famous, and most-often imitated: Champagne. At least around here, though, true Champagne will set you back more than $20, and a vintage Champagne will do even more damage. There are alternatives, however; they aren't Champagne, but they are good wines with plenty of bubbles. Most people know that California produces some good, affordable sparklers. Some reliable producers include Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Mumm, Pacific Echo and Gloria Ferrer. Australia also produces some good, reasonably-priced sparkling wines, as well as the unique red sparkling Shiraz. While many people know about inexpensive Spanish Cava (I still haven't found one that I really like), the sparkling wines from the non-Champagne regions of France (for example, Cremant d'Alsace, Cremant de Loire) are less well-known, and can offer some excellent bargains. And, of course, there are some very good German Riesling Sekts, one of which I recommended back in December.

If you start out with Champagne, you might want to move to something bigger and redder (the color of all those Valentine's day decorations, after all) with dinner. I'd recommend a Zinfandel. Ok, so some people think that I'd always recommend a Zinfandel for any occasion, and they do have a point. However, if you think about it, Zins have big, bold fruit, and tend not to be too harshly tannic. Sure, they have relatively high alcohol levels, but that just keeps you warm on a cold February night. They're a lot more forward than most Cabernet Sauvignons (not to mention less expensive), and aren't as insipid as many of the new California Merlots. You should easily be able to find a number of good Zins in the $15-20 range.

We shouldn't forget that sweets tend to play a big role in Valentine's Day -- candy is one of the most traditional gifts, after all -- so dessert wines are an obvious choice to add to the menu. Port seems like an obvious choice for this time of year, and it wouldn't be a bad one at all. However, with a high-alcohol Zin on the menu, you might like a slightly lighter-feeling, lower alcohol wine. You could go for a really light wine, like a Moscato d'Asti (which also goes along with the bubble theme, as it is usually lightly carbonated). This sweet, low-alcohol, reasonably-priced wine from Italy's Piedmont (not to be confused with the generally inferior Asti, formerly known as Asti Spumante) is best drunk young, when the flavors are fresh and exuberant.

If you don't want more bubbles, Sauternes would be a classic choice for a sweet dessert wine, but prices tend to be pretty high; however, you can find some worthwhile, relatively inexpensive sweet whites from less-famous nearby appellations, such as Cadillac and Monbazillac. I've been less happy with inexpensive Sauternes imitations from Australia and South America. Icewines (or Eisweins), which are made from grapes frozen on the vine, can be stunning, powerful wines. Unfortunately, they are also quite expensive, usually starting at around $40 per half-bottle. Recently, a number of producers have begun to make "freezer wines," which are made from grapes which are put in a freezer and pressed while frozen. The flavors and sugars are concentrated by this process, though the results aren't as extraordinary as real Icewines. However, at less than $20 per half-bottle, they offer very good values, even if they aren't quite the same thing. Bonny Doon's Muscat Vin de Glaciere and Andrew Rich's Gewurztraminer Les Vigneaux are two good examples of this kind of wine.

These suggestions, along with this month's tasting notes, should be plenty to give you a good start on a festive but budget-conscious winter meal. And what about the food? Well, you'll just have to pick the menu yourself -- which shouldn't be a problem if you have great wines to complement the menu.

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley NV -- My perennial favorite among the California non-vintage sparkling wines. Good nose with some yeasty, leesy notes rising above apple and cherry fruit. Lots of apple and pear fruit in the mouth, with cherry overtones. Intense, lingering finish with plenty of fruit and quenching acidity. This is definitely made in a California style, and is less lean than bottles I've tried in previous years, but it still has a tighter structure than many California sparklers. Seems a bit sweet for a brut.

Truchard Zinfandel Carneros '97 -- Interesting nose with more earthy notes than normal in a Zin. the nose is tight at first, but plenty of plum and blackberry eventually come forward with air. The palate also needs time to open up, but shows some complexity with layers of plum, berries, leather and earth. A lush, plummy, earthy finish with medium tannins.

Ridge Geyserville Sonoma County '92 -- I know, I know... This wine breaks the budget restriction, assuming you can still find some. But it's just too good to ignore. A small amount of sediment collected at the bottom, so the wine was decanted just before drinking. A huge nose of spicy plum, pepper, anise, leather and some other complex aromas. Very lush mouthfeel. This is a big wine with complex flavors, including plum and dark berry fruit with lots of pepper, spice and tobacco. The long finish is almost port-like, plum, spice, tobacco, earth and still some moderate tannin. Too bad this was my last bottle.

Andrew Rich Gewurztraminer Les Vigneaux Willamette Valley '97 -- A floral Gewurztraminer nose, along with apples and spice -- makes me think of apple pie in a bottle. This is a drink-me-now, hedonistic, lush wine, with apple-pie, peach and vanilla flavors. Seriously sweet, but with just enough balancing acidity for now; I wouldn't keep this any longer, though. A long lush finish of apples, cinnamon and allspice. Better than the 96, which was also very good.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.