This weekend is the big restaurant stampede of the year. If you've failed to secure reservations by now, here's my advice: Don't bother. Any place that will take you at 7:30 won't be worth it.
Instead, offer to cook, ideally at your valentine's place (it's more gallant). Bring the ingredients, even if it's Asian takeout or a Blue Menu butter-chicken entrée. Just make sure you compensate with a suave homemade dessert, the only course that counts this weekend. Dessert is where you score maximum points for minimal effort. And if you can melt butter and scoop ice cream, you can make dessert. (Watch a klutzy goombah like me flambé bananas at www.globeandmail.com/life/valentines-day).
To show that you aren't just trying to get your date sloppy and uninhibited, choose a wine that's delicate and preferably white, offbeat but not pretentious or stupidly expensive. Shirazes don't work; they're the tacky garter belts of wine. Choose a wine that pairs well with food and smells captivatingly of the flowers you forgot to bring - a chenin blanc or riesling or gewurztraminer or viognier.
Okay, this is not a relationships column and I am no couch coach. But I can almost guarantee that the following bottles are worth the money, regardless how significant or mundane the occasion.
Lammershoek Chenin Blanc 2008 ($18.95, product No. 58206) hails from South Africa, where the chenin blanc grape is a specialty. The wine was released last week in Ontario through Vintages stores. I love its indecisiveness. Medium-bodied and fleshy, it announces itself with a ripe fruitiness suggesting sugar, but then does a 180, resolving with crisp, dry acidity, minerals and a spicy-floral finish. That's the chenin blanc grape for you - a yin-yang of sweetness and tartness. It's best known as the ingredient in Vouvray from France's Loire Valley, and wine doesn't get much sexier than Vouvray. You feel sexier just by pronouncing the word. This one was fermented in French-oak barrels for added weight and softness, using wild yeasts for added complexity.
You have to be on certain familiar terms with your valentine to offer up the next wine, given it's frivolous name. But it's no novelty wine. Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois White 2008 ($17.95, No. 665166) is a California blend of the French grapes chardonnay and chenin blanc with the Italian moscato. Tropical fruit, citrus and floral notes dominate in this easy-to-drink white.
D'Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2008 ($17.95, No. 662775) from Australia shows plenty of that Valentine-appropriate floral bouquet characteristic of viognier, with a core of tangerine, honey and lavender. Great for Indian or other Asian fare.
Just released in British Columbia and Alberta (but not yet anywhere else) is the excellent Mission Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2007 ($18.99). New Zealand-born winemaker John Simes of Kelowna-based Mission Hill, whose trophy room would almost make Sidney Crosby envious, has produced another world-class chardonnay. There is great aromatic lift to this full-bodied white, which has already taken gold medals at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in Paris and the Selections Mondiales des Vin Canada in Quebec, among other competitions. Ripe stone fruit and tropical fruit flavours mingle with a pronounced flavour of toasted bread; they're held together with a firm spine of acidity.
I also can't think of many New World rosés with more poise for the money than Sandhill Rosé 2008 ($17.99, only in B.C.). It's perfectly dry, in the style of a classic Provencal rosé, with a medium body, shiny pink hue and flavours of strawberry and herbs.
Limited to Ontario and available through the winery only is the excellent Organized Crime Riesling Reserve 2008 ($28 through www.organizedcrimewine.com). Big-bodied and weighing in at 14.5-per-cent alcohol, this is a hefty Alsatian-style dry riesling, with a dense, almost oily texture, plump peach-like fruit and the perfect level of balancing acidity.
Another good California white for the money is Fog Head Reserve Chardonnay 2008 ($19.95, No. 158568). From Monterey County, it is full-bodied and silky, with core flavours of melon and pear and a toasty note that carries through to the dry finish.
Unavailable for purchase in time for a Valentine's dinner but worth ordering by the case in Ontario through its agent, Marcel Réthoré of LeCaviste, is a terrific French white called Domaine des Lognettes Gros-Plant du Pays Nantais 2008 ($12.75, firstname.lastname@example.org, 416-424-2553). Light and zesty, it tastes like a fresh lemon, only without the piercing acidity. At a mere 11-per-cent alcohol, this is a pretty little sip that goes down with infamous ease. In the French seaside district from whence it springs, there is a legend that doctors advising patients to cease drinking alcohol sometimes add a footnote: "Gros-plant is okay." I'm sure it's not okay for compromised livers, but the grape makes wine perfect for oysters, spring salads and outdoor sipping. You can order a case in plenty of time for patio weather.
From the same importer, you can buy other fine Loire Valley wines, including the superb Catherine & Pierre Breton La Dilettante Vouvray 2008 ($26.15). Medium-bodied, silky and round, it packs a nice core of opulent fruit, resolving with tangy, green-apple acidity and a dry mineral chalkiness.
Breton is best known for reds based on cabernet franc, and I can highly recommend the Catherine & Pierre Breton Chinon Beaumont 2007 ($25.50, also available only by the case through Réthoré). it's medium-bodied with bright, crisp cherry fruit, a blossom-like floral note and firm but not overbearing acidity.
If you crave frosty beer instead of wine with Thai food, consider Singha Lager ($11.95 for a six-pack at LCBO stores in Ontario, No. 676395), the fine import from Thailand itself. I like this 100-per-cent barley-malt brew. It's light and bone-dry, with a bread-like flavour, fine carbonation and subtle hop-driven bitterness.
And, if you can find it, do not miss the superb new Great Lakes Brewery Canuck Pale Ale ($4.95, No. 175109). Inspired by the Winter Olympic Games, it's an Ontario beer brewed in the West Coast pale ale style but hopped to the max. It will be one of five Ontario craft beers served in the Ontario pavilion at the Games. The blast of bitterness is underpinned by a malty, dark-bread flavour, with splendid balance and dry finish. At 5.2-per-cent alcohol, it's sold in double-size, 650-millilitre bottles at select LCBO stores.
Picks of the week
Organized Crime Riesling Reserve 2008 ($28 through www.organizedcrimewine.com) is a hefty Alsatian-style dry riesling with a dense, almost oily texture, plump peach-like fruit and the perfect level of balancing acidity.
Domaine des LognettesGros-Plant du Pays Nantais 2008 ($12.75, email@example.com, 416-424-2553) tastes like a fresh lemon, only without the piercing acidity.
Great Lakes Brewery Canuck Pale Ale ($4.95, No. 175109) is an Ontario beer brewed in the West Coast pale ale style but hopped to the max. The blast of bitterness is underpinned by a malty, dark-bread flavour; it also has a splendid balance and dry finish.