Friday, 14 February 2014

Sweep them off their feet - but do your homework first

I claim there ain’t
Another Saint
As great as Valentine. 
-          Ogden Nash

Here we are on that day of the year about which I have mixed feelings:  Valentine’s Day, when we are all supposed to toe the love line and demonstrate our devotion to our loved one. Now who am I to pooh-pooh the notion of a day given over to romance? But the idea that millions, nay billions, of us should all feel the lurve, to order, on 14th February every year induces a certain sullen bolshiness in me.

Romance is dead – it was acquired in a hostile takeover by Hallmark and Disney, homogenized and sold off piece by piece.
-          Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

And have you seen the Valentine-themed merchandising?

At a local convenience store I spied such treasures as fake sparkly single red roses (sensible, can be re-used), red heart bunting to adorn your love nest (bit OTT and actually a bit scary) and, bafflingly, packs of twenty heart-shaped napkins. Twenty napkins? I didn’t realise Valentine’s Day was a group activity. Have I missed something? Are we supposed to throw Valentine’s parties nowadays, or are they designed for mopping up extravagant food and drink spillages without breaking the romantic spell by having to make a grab for the kitchen roll?

If you have made no particular preparations for your night of romance please do not pick up a card, flowers and a bottle of rosé from the garage on the way home. Nothing says “meh” like forecourt flowers and petrol stations are not renowned for their classy wine choices. Better to go home empty-handed than to bring home gifts that scream zero effort.

Better still is to spend a couple of minutes at your desk researching your options before setting off for home. The best shortcut to celebration is Champagne (I would say that wouldn’t I), though at this late stage you are not in a position to go chasing after a particular grower’s exclusive cuvée. However, there is equally no need to grab a bottle of anything that sports the name Champagne from a gondola end in the nearest supermarket.

May I respectfully point you towards a site called Bring a Bottle (, which provides useful information on where to pick up most of the Champagne grandes marques at the best price from major retailers. My eye was drawn to Bollinger Special Cuvée Rosé NV at £36.99 from Waitrose (hint, hint). One of the things I particularly like about the Bring a Bottle site is that it includes a handy graphic, illustrating price movements over previous weeks for your chosen Champagne – so you can tell whether the best price on offer really is a good deal, or whether you are just getting the going rate. “My” Bollinger Rosé has been pretty consistently available at an average of just under £39, so I’m happy that the Waitrose offer is worth taking up, albeit not a tremendous bargain either.

Other Champagne brands have far more volatile pricing – Veuve Clicquot NV, for example, which frequently varies from between £27 to £35 a bottle. If this is your Champagne of choice, you’d be well advised to wait until the price dips below £30 before buying. The Bring a Bottle site allows you set up an email alert which will advise you when a particular wine drops below its current lowest available price.

If you have more time available to winkle out your chosen bottle then a virtual trip to  allows you to search across a wider range of suppliers, including many independent merchants who also mostly now offer online ordering. This is often the best way to find the keenest price for any particular wine that you are after.

Pink fizz seems to be de rigueur for Valentine’s Day and it will no doubt not have escaped your notice that you have to shell out more for the rosé version of a house’s Champagne. Viz, Bollinger Special Cuvée is currently £32 at Asda, £32.49 at Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, compared to the lowest price for the rosé of £36.99. It would be a churlish valentine who would turn their nose and Champagne flute up at “merely” the Bollinger Special Cuvée, surely.

If you really want to show that you know your stuff, THE pink fizz of the Champagne cognoscenti is the delicate, understated and food-friendly Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé – though at around £50 a bottle currently it is not a bargain. Another favourite is Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé (prices range from £44 to a frankly ridiculous £58), which has more overt red fruit and can be happily sipped on its own.

Do chocolates and Champagne mix? In any objective way, of course not. Champagne lacks the body and sweetness (even the sweeter, demi-sec styles) to stand up to the mouth coating sweetness and richness of chocolate. Putting them together is flattering neither to the Champagne nor the chocolates. If you want a wine to match with a box of chocs, then a rich old Oloroso sherry would be a far better choice. But there is undoubtedly something decadent and endearingly batty about showering your loved one in luxury items, whether they should ever be consumed together or not.

And a final piece of advice if you’re thinking of buying something for your female Valentine to wear, remember that, in the words of Dorothy Parker, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

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