Pretty in Pink

If you haven't made dinner plans for Valentine's Day yet, take my advice: Don't. Few days on the calendar stress out restaurateurs and diners more than the one night of the year when every diner in the house wants a picture-perfect, more-romantic-than-ever dining experience. And wants it in less than two hours. After all, the meal will set the tone for the rest of the evening. If all goes well at dinner, you reason, and since this year it falls on a Friday, well, let's just say, it's not a school night. “Waiter! The check — now!”

Let me tell you a little secret: This isn't romantic for the waiter, who could give a flying saucer about your “need” to get home. So why not just consolidate all of your expectations? Yeah, you got it: Stay home, order in, and feast like Romans in bed.

Sound good? Of course it does, and you're right to feel foolish for not having thought of it sooner. I'm not here to tell you how to set the scene for romance at home, but I will tell you what to pour: rosé Champagne. That's right, pink bubbly. But not the stuff your grandma used to sip while watching Lawrence Welk. We're talking Champagne that's better than ordinary Champagne. We're talking Champagne that has the lightness and elegance of Champagne but the body and character of red wine. We're talking Champagne for toasting your valentine and Champagne that can stand up to any food. How's that for consolidating expectations?

Before you say you don't like pink wines, hear me out. I, too, have been disappointed by candy-sweet “blush” wines that look far better than they taste. But rosé Champagnes are an entity unto themselves. As Benoit Gouez, a winemaker at Dom Pérignon (DP), explains it, DP's rosé is a paradox, balancing the complexity that comes from aging the wines with the freshness that makes Champagne unique. “We're looking for maturity, but also for structure, fruitiness, creaminess, lightness, and délicatesse,” Gouez says, using a French word that covers it all.

How does rosé Champagne accomplish all that? Well, to understand pink Champagne, we should first talk about Champagne in general. All true Champagne comes from the region of Champagne in northeastern France. The wine is made through a painstaking process called the méthode Champenoise, which generally translates into superior quality and higher prices. Wines that bubble but are not from France's Champagne region should be called “sparkling wines,” even if they're made in the méthode Champenoise. In a fine retail store you'll find a variety of sparkling wines, some produced in the Champagne method, many others made in the charmat method, a process yielding simpler, more affordable bubbles.

Rosé Champagnes, however, aren't obvious to the eye, because most wine bottles are tinted green to protect the wine from ultraviolet rays. If the label doesn't say “rosé,” you can assume the Champagne is white. But even when the Champagne is white in color, it has nearly always been made with both white and red grapes. Got that? White Champagnes are made by pressing the red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) quickly without extracting any of the color from the grapes' skins. The white grape of Champagne is chardonnay, and it generally makes up about half of any classic blend of Champagne. As for rosé, its beautiful color (ranging from pale onionskin to topaz, copper, salmon, and rosy pink) comes from adding red grape skins to the blend or by introducing pinot noir red wine to the blend before the wine is fermented for the second time in the bottle, giving it those magical bubbles. Therefore, rosés taste the most like red wine — because they actually contain some red wine — with red berry fruit flavors and tannins firm enough to stand up to red meat.

Really? “Absolument!” says Jacques Péters, senior cellarmaster at Veuve Clicquot, who says that although rosé is a small specialty for Clicquot, representing only 2 percent of its wines, “it's real wine — le vrai vin — a true wine.” Therefore, he says, “it gives opportunity to the neophyte to recognize the power of pinot noir through the color and aroma — a Champagne with typical pinot noir structure and style.” I agree, which is why I treat rosé like a sparkling pinot noir, able to stand up to practically any food — and perfect for ordering in.

If you're still set on going out, I can't stop you. But I can suggest a few restaurants that understand rosé Champagne. Cat Silirie, wine director at No. 9 Park, pours a great deal of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($75 for a half bottle), which she describes as “sensuous, full-bodied, and great with food. It's a natural fit with chef [Barbara] Lynch's chanterelle flan, and I love it with her roast squab with chanterelle duxelles, baby squash, and sauce Périgourdine, which is made with black truffles.” Chris Campbell, owner of Troquet, says the Billecart-Salmon is the house favorite at his restaurant, too. “We offer it for $8.50 for 2 ounces, $17 for 4 ounces, and $50 for the half bottle,” says Campbell, “and people here order it without our having to tell them it's the best. It's a wine with a cult following.” Geoffrey Fallon, sommelier at Les Zygomates, says, “Rosé Champagnes are the best in the world because pinot noir adds depth and makes them great food wines.” What would he pair with chef/owner Ian Just's roast duck? “I'd recommend the Laurent-Perrier NV Brut Rosé ($75 a bottle; $15 a glass) or the Krug NV Brut Rosé ($300 a bottle),” says Fallon, adding, “I also like recommending rosé with spicy foods.”

So do I, which is why I'm ordering in crispy calamari with jalapeño peppers from Jumbo Seafood and letting my valentine feed them to me like grapes.

What to Buy

Rosé Outlook

Krug Brut Rosé NV, $280
Taittinger Brut Rosé Comtes de Champagne 1995, $200
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé Cuvée Palmes d'Or 1996, $170
Bollinger Brut Rosé 1988, $80
Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé Réserve 1995, $75
Gosset Brut Rosé Grand NV, $70
Heidsieck Monopole Brut Rosé Champagne Diamant 1988, $70
Pol Roger Brut Rosé 1995, $63
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV, $59
Taittinger Brut Rosé Prestige NV, $50
Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé NV, $49
Pommery Brut Rosé NV, $45
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Rosé NV, $32