BY CARLOS CARDENAS
There’s something peaceful about January. The weather is cooler, we don’t see the sun as much and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is behind us. January gives us an opportunity to focus on resolutions we’ve made, improvements we want to see in our lives, a chance to be new.
Then, almost as fast as it arrived, January is gone.
Now that February is here, it’s time to start thinking about Valentine’s Day. Some people really look forward to it, others do not.
What we do know in the food and wine industry, however, is that Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest nights of the year, if not the busiest. It’s a night where many people go out for dinner who otherwise wouldn’t be out on a Wednesday. It’s a special occasion.
For many, Valentine’s Day means a great dinner at a beautiful restaurant with a bottle of wine and your favorite person. Let’s focus on making that bottle selection process a little easier.
Choosing a wine off a list at a restaurant can be intimidating. There are so many bottles, often divided up by region or style. Many times, we pick something just because we recognize a word or a place; it can feel like taking a shot in the dark, but with a little help, choosing the right bottle doesn’t have to be so complicated.
It starts outside the restaurant. Before you even take your seat at the table, you should already have a number in your head; what you will allow yourself to spend on wine. Stick to that number! Everyone has a different budget, and deciding beforehand to not spend more than “x” amount of dollars on wine simplifies the selection process because you’ve eliminated a good chunk of the list.
Don’t let a server guilt you into spending more than you’re comfortable with. Yes, there is a Valentine’s special on the menu. Yes, the story might be that this particular wine will only be available on this night. It still doesn’t mean you need to spend more than you want.
After you’ve eliminated all the wines you won’t be ordering, have a conversation with the person you’re dining with. Ask them what they feel like eating, and ask yourself the same question. Wine should absolutely be paired to your food and not the other way around.
There is the very basic breakdown of red wine with meat, and white wine with seafood or poultry. This is a rule for a reason, but it is not hard and fast. Much like pirate code, the above decree can be seen as more of a guideline.
A big steak deserves an equally bold red wine, and you can’t go wrong with a Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Not having a heavy beef course? Pinot Noir will typically complement a lighter meat course like lamb or duck because the wine is itself lighter and smoother. For Pinots, look to Oregon, Washington State or Northern California. The climate on the West Coast is prime for producing quality Pinot Noir.
Seafood courses can go well with chardonnay, but it can depend on the dish itself. Don’t be afraid to ask your server for a recommendation. Often, a sauvignon blanc from a warmer region can provide fruitier, more tropical flavors that might compliment the dish in a different way.
Spicy foods, believe it or not, go incredibly well with sweet wines. The sugar in the wine will cut the heat lingering on your palate, and will refresh and awaken your mouth for the next bite. For these, look for a German Riesling, something that might say Spätlese on the bottle. These wines have beautiful touches of residual sugar so while it won’t be overly sweet, it will still complement the heat of your food. You might also consider an Italian moscato, possibly something from the region of Asti.
We’ve only just scratched the surface, but the hope is that these pointers will serve you well. The great news is that these are things to look for not just on Valentine’s Day, but on any night that you might order a bottle with dinner.
Also, it’s important to remember that you will order a bad bottle at some point. It won’t pair with your food that well, or maybe you ordered it off the recommendation of a friend who likes different flavors than you. Don’t let a bad bottle of wine ruin your evening. Drinking wine is a patient person’s game, and it’s just as important to find what you don’t like as it is to find what you do.
Remember to focus on the table; what’s in front of you. The person, the food and the atmosphere are the most important things. Wine is, at the end of the day, a compliment to the table, to the experience. Don’t put unnecessary stress on the bottle, instead let the bottle remove the stress you might be carrying.
Carlos Cardenas is a Rio Grande Valley native and a Level 1 Sommelier.