February is one of my favorite months. It’s not the weather, which is usually abysmal, at least any place that I’ve ever lived. It’s a combination of several holidays – Groundhog’s Day, Presidents’ Day (and all four presidents individual birthdays that happen during the month – can you name them?), Valentine’s Day, and Lupercalia.
Our little furry friend did or did not see his shadow, I can never remember which one is the good one. Nonetheless it is currently snowing and sleeting out my window, the sky is grey, the temperature is diving faster than Michael and Janet Jackson’s popularity with sponsors, and I’m in a perfectly delightful mood.
Valentine’s Day, a modernization slash christianization of the ancient fertility festival of Lupercalia (you were wondering, weren’t you) has to be my favorite holiday of the year. Except for whichever other ones are. I’m a holiday junkie. There’s something about all those cute little candied hearts, sending “Will You Be My Valentine” cards to all the girls in school (I wonder what would have happened if I’d given one to a boy in first grade), chocolates, roses, chasing naked maidens around with goat skin whips… sorry, slipped back into the old holiday.
But mostly, for me, it is, like all holidays, about the food. Valentine’s Day gives a chance to play with all sorts of seductive, sensuous and ostensibly aphrodisiac foods. There are those we are familiar with here in the U.S. – chocolates, oysters, caviar, honey, figs, strawberries… just to name a few. But with cultural variations there are so many other possibilities – truffles, coriander seeds, pinenuts, vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, garlic…
In fact, there are so many possibilities that it might almost be easier to list the foods that no one has claimed as an aphrodisiac than those that have been!
Now for me, there are a few simple rules. First, there must be somewhere there to share the experience with. If there’s not, I’ll just go draw a bubble bath and sip a glass of champagne. If there is, oh wait, I’ll go draw a bubble bath and break out the champagne anyway. The food should be sensual and slippery to the touch – part, no doubt, of the reasoning behind the crowning of the oyster as king or queen of the aphrodisiacs. And, you should be able to feed each other with your fingertips. No cutlery involved! Which kind of moves oysters out of my spotlight, unless they’re raw on the half shell.
I have to admit, the first thing that always comes to my mind for a seductive tLte-a-tLte is a strawberry dipped in warm melted chocolate alongside that glass of bubbly. In truth, I can rarely think of anything in the food world that is much more appealing.
Okay, the food is taken care of. I know, you thought I was going to give you a recipe this month. Sure, sure… melt some dark chocolate, get some fresh strawberries, dip, feed them to each other, hop in the bubble bath. Use your imagination.
No, via a circuitous route, I’m headed to the bubbly in the glass. Because for me, that’s where the romance part of the aphrodisiac comes into play. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Maybe it’s the bubbles. Maybe it’s the mystique. Champagne can, for me, make or break an amatory evening.
So, what’s the point of this all… Oh yes, to recommend some Champagne for you to drink! Whether for Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia, Groundhog’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, William Henry Harrison’s Birthday, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, or Ronald Reagan’s Birthday (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging, did you), here are some prime recommendations. Try something other than those “name brands” that you see everywhere (not that there’s anything wrong with them, but be adventurous). And, with the exception of the last recommendation, most of these will cost you less than the “usual suspects.”
One of my year in, year out favorties is Larmandier-Bernier’s Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Brut, N.V. Oh my, what does all that mean? Let’s split it up a little… Larmandier-Bernier, the name of the estate, currently run by Pierre Larmandier. Blanc de Blancs literally means “white from whites”. As you may or may not know, Champagne can only be made from three different grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The former two are red grapes, the latter white – Blanc de Blancs being a white wine made from only white grapes – i.e., 100% Chardonnay. 1er Cru, or Premier Cru, is a classification by the French government that groups various vineyards into a ranking system – the highest being Grand Cru, then Premier Cru, then all the rest. So Pierre’s vineyards are in the second tier – but trust me, that’s not a bad thing. Brut is a level of dryness, which is a function of the amount of residual sugar in the bubbly when it arrives at your table. There is a scale for Champagne that goes from sweet (Doux) to bone dry (Brut Zero). The most common has just a touch of remaining sugar, and is called Brut. And finally, N.V. – Non-Vintage, which very simply means that the wine is a blend of more than one year’s production. This is quite common in Champagne as it allows the winemaker to keep a consistent style year after year by blending the results of several vintages to keep your tastebuds happy.
Back to the wine in question – laser focused purity of fruit with delicious apple and yeast flavors, medium bodied, and absolutely delicious!
A. Margaine Demi-Sec is my current fave when I want something with a touch of noticeable sweetness. Perfect with a cheese course or with dessert, this demi-sec, or semi-dry, has beautiful floral notes and a solid touch of minerals on it. As the importer puts it – “Are you man enough to like a wine because it’s pretty?”
Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvée St. Anne”, N.V. is a just plain “wow” sparkler. Big, rich, and just plain remarkable, this wine is a blend of all three champagne grapes. Flavors of baked apple, butter, and golden beets with a creamy finish make this a fantastic main course bubbly!
Beaumont des Crayères “Fleur de Rosé” is one of my favorite pink champagnes. Once the provenance of call girls and “stage door johnnys”, rosé champagne is not (and truly never has been) sweet pink swill. A few brands that were popular in their heyday gained that reputation, but truthfully, most of the stuff is elegant, dry, and delicious. The pink color comes from a blending of the red (remember the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuneir) and white (Chardonnay) wines prior to the bubbly process. Which brings up a point – while white grapes can only make white wine, red grapes can make red or white wine! Bite into a red grape and notice that the red color is virtually all in the skin – with careful pressing, part or all of that color can be left behind in the winemaking process.
Duval-Leroy “Paris” is a winner not just for the delightful wine in the bottle, but for the bottle itself. A dark blue, wide bodied bottle, with a gold silk-screened Paris café scene created by artist LeRoy Neiman is beautiful to display. But pop the cork and find a blend heavy on the Pinot Noir with Chardonnay topping it off that yields a delicious quaff with flavors of honeysuckle, white flowers, and hazelnuts.
Comte Audoin de Dampierre “Cuvée des Ambassadeurs”, N.V. is made by a real count. Well, okay, he owns the place, he doesn’t make the wine himself. And the “Ambassadeurs” comes from the wine being the “house champagne” at nearly four dozen French embassies around the world. A delectable fifty-fifty blend Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has a wonderful golden color, and notes of wood smoke, flowers, and grapefruit. Quite nice!
Last, but by no means least (and the most expensive one listed here) as one of my favorite champagnes of all time, Vranken-Demoiselle “Cuvée 21”. Created by Champagne Demoiselle (now owned by the corporate Vranken Group), as the answer to champagne in the 21st century, this is a lush, rich champagne with flavors of fresh baked biscuits topped with apple butter. Oh, and the gorgeous bottle trimmed in gold and served up in its own blue velvet sack is pretty damned enticing as well.
Happy February all!
I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.