In 2013, I turned to some D.C. sommeliers for their advice on pairing wines with a romantic dinner out on Valentine’s Day. Sadly, several of these restaurants have since closed, and of course somms move around as opportunities arise. But their advice still holds, in case you are dining out this Valentine’s Day.
As Moez Ben Achour approaches a table at Marcel’s, Robert Wiedmaier’s haute restaurant in the District’s West End, he is already assessing his clients’ thirst. On Valentine’s Day, the sommelier knows his task can be even more challenging.
“Everybody has already spent money on the gift, maybe even an engagement ring, and they are splurging on the food. So I know the bank will be low,” Ben Achour says. “They’re looking for a wine that offers romance and value, especially on the sparkling side.”
Ben Achour’s recommendation for the budget-conscious romantic is a sparkling wine from Burgundy: the Michel Sarrazin Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé, made entirely from pinot noir grapes. While it doesn’t come from the Champagne region and cannot legally carry that prestigious name on its label, the wine is made in the same method as champagne. Cremant de Bourgogne is the insider’s secret in sparkling wines, because it often approaches champagne in quality without commanding the same price. And, of course, the Burgundians know a thing or two about pinot noir.
Local sommeliers I spoke with about Valentine’s Day choices struck similar chords: bubbles for celebration, rosé for everyday romance, modestly priced picks for young lovers. Richard Dunham, who directs the wine program at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, one of the Washington region’s most romantic dining spots, suggests half-bottles to provide appropriate variety and set the mood. He’s bold enough to suggest a sweet champagne, such as the Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, to start the meal.
“It pairs well with our appetizer of Roquefort cheese and caramelized apple,” Dunham says. For chateaubriand for two, he recommends a half-bottle of Shafer Merlot 2009 from Napa Valley. “Its supple elegance will have you gazing not only into the glass but at each other,” he says, as though he were pouring romance rather than wine.
That meal for two would cost about $350. More-budget-minded diners could substitute two glasses each of Jean-Baptiste Adam Cremant d’Alsace, another French sparkling wine, and a 2009 Bordeaux with the whimsical name of Chateau Baby, and pay about $250.
Scott Clime, wine and beverage director for the Passion Food Hospitality group — which includes DC Coast, Acadiana, District Commons and Passionfish, among others — also thinks of rosé: the Gruet Rosé non-vintage sparkling wine from New Mexico, which he describes as “a garnet-colored wine with a floral bouquet of strawberry, raspberry and cherry.” At $17 retail, it is a terrific value. He recommends an Argyle Riesling 2010 from Oregon and a Vina Cobos Malbec 2010 from Argentina — both at less than $20 a bottle retail — to round out the meal. [NB – He most likely meant the Vina Cobos Fellino. And Acadiana and DC Coast are now closed.]
If you’re dining at CityZen, sommelier Andy Myers might serve you sparkling wine at the end of the meal. [NB – Well, okay, nobody is dining at CityZen anymore, and Andy might favor a Spanish wine now that he is heading up the beverage programs for José Andrés’s Think Food Group of restaurants.]
“If the couple’s young, playful and romantic, I go for moscato d’Asti,” Myers says. “We will pour you a glass for your birthday or anniversary. It’s a great wine with dessert: sweet, and the alcohol’s not too high.” He recommends a moscato called Annalisa, which retails for a modest $12.
Moscato needn’t be limited to the end of the meal, he notes: “My mom drinks a glass the minute she sits down.”
Should you be dining at Plume in the Jefferson Hotel, sommelier Michael Scaffidi has splurge suggestions for the end of your Valentine’s meal. If all has gone well, opt for a glass of Madeira. If you are having the wine pairings with your menu, the Love Letters dessert will be paired with On the Wings of Dawn, a sweet wine from Austria made by Heidi Schroeck. [NB – Michael has since decamped for New York City, but Plume is still noted for its Madeira selection.]
The wine carries a double-entendre for lovers, Scaffidi warns: The name for this particular style of dessert wine, means “escape” in German.