Is it that time of year again already? If you haven't made dinner reservations for Valentine's Day by now, start rehearsing your lame excuse. Feb. 14 is the biggest restaurant night of the year, assuming your definition of "restaurant" involves white linen and not drive-thru windows. Coveted tables are scarce. But here's the best excuse I know - and I should stress that you're dealing with a sage veteran where Valentine's Day reparations are concerned: Champagne.
Buy a bottle. Put it on ice. Slip a greeting card (the Far Side ones don't count) into the petals of a bouquet. Then, when the time comes (I mean dinner, not what you were just thinking), suavely produce a tray of freshly shucked oysters from your fridge.
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Is this sounding too much like relationship counselling? Sorry. I just needed a segue for oysters. I like oysters. I also love all the drinks that pair with them - sparkling wine, crisp, still whites such as Chablis and muscadet, vodka from the freezer and dark beer, especially stouts and porters.
Among widely available brands of basic, non-vintage Champagne from France, my favourites at the moment include: Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($67.95 in Ontario; $67.99 in British Columbia); Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($54.95 in Ont., $59.99 in B.C.) and Lanson Black Label Brut ($54.99 in B.C. and discounted by $5 to $44.85 in Ont. till Feb. 27 - hey, your valentine doesn't have to know you scored a deal).
I'm including some limited-inventory bubbly releases below from Ontario Vintages stores. The first seven products would be nice with oysters, though dry sparkling wine is versatile and could stand up to a main course.
Brochet-Hervieux HBH Premier Cru Brut Champagne 1997 (France)
What a bargain for a premium, vintage-dated Champagne. Medium-bodied but with great depth of flavour, it caresses the palate with flavours of honey, nuts, lemon and toasted bread. There's a cereal-like finish to this tangy, tasty gem: Honey Bunches of Bubbles.
Blue Mountain Brut sparkling wine (B.C.)
I mentioned this sparkling wine, from one of B.C.'s best boutique producers, in December after it was released in the West. It arrived this week in Ontario Vintages stores, a mini-triumph in the growth of East-West domestic wine trade. It's gorgeous - delicate, unfrothy and effervescent. A blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris, it's bone-dry, toasty and yeasty.
Françoise Monay Brut Champagne (France)
Apples - fresh and baked - form the core of flavour here. A hint of biscuit and almost prickly acidity keep it interesting and lively. Good value for true-blue Champagne.
Jansz Premium Non-Vintage Rosé (Australia)
From the southern island of Tasmania, where Australia's cooler climate produces delicious pinot noir and chardonnay, this pink bubbly is a blend of both grapes - built in the image of classic Champagne. Seductively salmon-like in colour, it's lively and bone-dry, with notes of strawberry, flowers and mineral.
Pierre Sparr Rosé Brut Cremant d'Alsace (France)
Orange-pink in colour, this fetching sparkler from one of France's best bubble-producing regions outside Champagne leads off with a blast of Champagne-like stone and earth, like a ride down a gravel road with the windows down. Then come the berries promised by its hue, carried on a creamy texture. Good value.
Shingle Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (New Zealand)
Classic New Zealand sauvignon blanc flavours of gooseberry and fresh grass mingle with a welcome interloper more closely associated with the great Sancerres of France - gun flint. That makes this tangy, juicy kiwi white a better match for oysters than most of its kin. The B.C. price is $19.99.
Absolut Elyx Vodka (Sweden)
The battle for our vodka-smitten hearts just escalated. This new luxury extension of the Absolut brand is, like that famous tea, available only in Canada - at least for the moment. The Swedish brand chose the land of the Canada goose to take on Grey Goose, the dominant pricey vodka, as a sort of test market. You know what? It's really good. Distilled from Nordic wheat in a quaint, 1929 copper still in small quantities, the spirit delivers a luscious texture and, crucially, a totally dry, spicy edge. It contains no sugar, the undeclared ingredient that gives some expensive vodkas their silky mouthfeel. It's too good - or at least too expensive - to waste in a pink cosmopolitan for Valentine's Day. Enjoy it straight from the freezer with oysters or, better yet, caviar or smoked-salmon blinis. The B.C. price is $51.99.
Diamond Ridge Zinfandel 2007 (California)
Fond of red wine with chocolate? Many of us in the wine-criticism game are not. I tend to prefer sweet wines, spirits, dark beer or, best of all, coffee. But if you insist, this is a good candidate. From the elite Howell Mountain appellation of Napa Valley, it's full-bodied and brimming with notes of raisin, mushroom and, yes, chocolate. A sexy red. It's a bargain.
Ghost Pines Winemaker's Blend Chardonnay 2007 (California)
Crafted in a crowd-pleasing style, this full-bodied white is just a tad too sweet, though vaguely so, to make me happy on Feb. 14. But I'm not your valentine, and it may be a style she or he would like. Full-bodied, round and silky, it offers up notes of toasty pineapple and peach lifted by decent acidity.
Lake of Bays Mocha Porter (Ontario)
I like the velvety texture and smoky overtone in this dark-ebony beer from Baysville, Ont., southeast of Huntsville. It's relatively dry for a mocha porter and carries a bitter finish. That almost recommends it for oysters, though chocolate would be the better match. Then again, it comes in a 750-millilitre bottle. You could try it with both.