Writing 52 weekly wine columns a year can be challenging, but those of us lucky enough to have such a gig have certain advantages. Such as, regular wine occasions that faithfully come up each year. (I’m thinking of you, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve!) One of these is Valentine’s Day. It’s a special occasion fraught with all sorts of anxieties, and wine shouldn’t be one of them. So over the years, I’ve tried to take that tension out of the evening. This week, I’ll repost some of my columns from over the years. You’ll find me repeating myself, but some of these themes are timeless, or at least annually relevant.
Here’s my first Valentine’s Day column in The Washington Post, from February 2009. I highlighted Brachetto d’Acqui, a slightly sweet, fizzy red from Italy that is dynamite with chocolate cake.
Some wines are meant to facilitate conversation rather than dominate it. They need no analysis, they reveal no undertones of earth or leather, they inspire no deep philosophical musings on the meaning of life. Rather than bring a thoughtful furrow to your brow, they prompt a quick, easy smile. And like characters in a romance novel who are destined to be together, some wines seem to have been created specifically to mate with a certain type of food.
Chocolate cake, meet Brachetto d’Acqui.
There really isn’t much to say about Brachetto d’Acqui. It’s a slightly sweet, fizzy, light red made from the Brachetto grape near the town of Acqui in Italy’s Piedmont region. Its bubbles are softer, with less atmospheric pressure to the gas, than champagne’s, and it typically is low in alcohol, at about 6 percent. Think of it as a red version of Moscato d’Asti, the effervescent white dessert wine made from the Muscat grape.
And it is a perfect match with most chocolate desserts, including cakes, brownies, cookies and especially any confection that includes fruit or a fruit sauce. That makes it an excellent choice for Valentine’s Day, a connection not lost on winery marketing departments eager to conjure images of a Niagara Falls honeymoon suite with rose petals strewn over the heart-shaped vibrating bed.
Stick your nose into a glass of Brachetto, and you might think you’re smelling a rose. Freshly picked strawberries still warm from the late spring sun come to mind as well. Sniff again, and try to pick out a hint of orange peel or clove. Take a sip: The wine is as light and fruity as its aroma suggests. Now take a bite of your chocolate dessert, followed by another sip of the Brachetto. The wine should grab on to the fruitiness of the chocolate, and any fruit flavor from cherries or raspberries in the dessert or its sauce will be magnified. Once those flavors fade, your palate will be refreshed by the gentle wash of the bubbles, and you’ll be ready for more chocolate.
Brachetto has its cousins: other sweet, effervescent reds from northern Italy that show similar characteristics and also pair well with chocolate. Vineyards near the Piedmont hamlet of Casorzo produce cherry-scented fizz from the Malvasia Nero grape. Casorzo wines tend to be darker in color than Brachetto and a little heavier in weight. Other frothy reds are made from Lambrusco, a grape that unfairly still brings to mind the cheap Italian jug wines popular a few decades ago. Other areas of Piedmont make a sweet wine from Brachetto, labeled Birbet. All of these wines are best consumed young and chilled.
But Brachetto d’Acqui is the leader of this pack, and the leading Brachetto is Rosa Regale, made and imported by Banfi. It is widely available in the United States at about $18. Bright ruby in color and strawberry scented, it is simple, delicious and fun. Coppo “Passione,” imported by Winebow, is more exotic: darker in color, with a red-orange tint, and redolent of orange peel and cloves.
Last week I recommended late-bottled vintage port with chocolate. Port and chocolate match power with power. Brachetto and other light, fizzy Italian reds take the opposite approach, countering chocolate’s intensity with bright fruit and acidity. Both are excellent choices, but the Brachetto might have an extra advantage as a Valentine’s Day choice: Any leftover wine will be good with breakfast.