It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, and it caught us off guard. No, we’re not going to send our Valentine an e-card, that would be tacky. But the idea of spending a pile of money on chocolates and champagne just isn’t as appealing as it was last year. Not that we don’t want to have chocolates and champagne, mind you, but both can be expensive – largely because they’re highly manipulated agricultural products that come from far away and are in (reasonably) limited supply. The question is, are they worth it? Everyone seems to expect champagne for New Year’s, but is it too much and too cliché for Valentine’s Day?
We’re not chocolate experts, but we’ve learned a few things about champagne, and we’ve come to the conclusion that if you really “care enough to send the very best,” you can’t do a whole lot better. Champagne from Champagne is the product of a lot of hands and minds coming together over a long period of time to make something distinctive. The combination of unique grape juice, a time-consuming production method, and aging before bringing it to market all make champagne more than your average wine, and more than your average sparkling wine, too.
Of course, champagne starts as wine, and as we’ve talked about in the past, where the wine grapes are grown makes a lot of difference. Champagne from the Champagne region of France gets its distinctive character from the particular climate, terrain, and soil conditions in the region. Two of the three grapes used in champagne are red grapes – pinot meunier and pinot noir – and the Champagne region is one of the most northerly places in the world they’re grown. This makes them a bit more acidic and gives them a unique flavor. Even the juice of the third grape, chardonnay, is different than you’ll find elsewhere. The pre-champagne wine is bright, mineral-y, and fruity. Every maker uses a different combination of these grapes, and it may not be the same each year – the key is to make a consistent product, and the makers may blend in some wine from a previous year if needed. (This is why most champagne is referred to as non-vintage, or NV. Champagne marked with a particular year is called vintage, and is usually made because the producer feels that the product that year is exceptional. All of the grape juice in a vintage bottle will come from the year marked on the label.)
So at this point you’ve got wine that has already been aged after fermentation, possibly in oak barrels, and it’s ready for the next steps. Yeast and sugar are added to the bottled wine to induce a second fermentation. The yeast consumes the sugar and produces the carbon dioxide inside the bottles. The fermentation doesn’t take long, but the yeast is left in the bottles for months afterward so the champagne can absorb flavors from the yeast cells. The bottles are then slowly rotated and turned cork-side down over a period of days or weeks so that gravity forces the yeast sediment into the neck of the bottles just on top of the cork. The end of the neck is immersed in a very cold solution to create a small ice plug inside the cork that contains the yeast residue. The bottle gets turned right-side-up, the cork is popped, and the pressure from the carbon dioxide inside the bottle forces that ice plug out. The bottle then gets topped off with a mixture of pre-second-fermentation wine, a bit of liqueur, and perhaps some sugar, depending on the product being made. (The exact mixture is proprietary and is different for each producer.) Then the bottle gets corked again. While parts of the turning/freezing/filling process can be automated, much of it is still done by hand even by the largest producers. It’s an amazing sight, thousands of rows of bottles with a little mark on the bottom of each like a one-handed clock – all of the marks pointing the same way so that the winemakers can keep track of the rotations.
Finally, the last step is aging, and this can literally take years, depending on the product. Other wines can also be aged for years by their producers, but even most red wines are released for sale within two years after harvest, including wines that you’re meant to put down in your own cellar for aging. The Champagne region is riddled with underground caves containing millions of bottles of champagne getting themselves ready for market. Champagne bottles are bigger than most wine bottles, so the sheer amount of space required for storage is mind-boggling. (It may not be prime above-ground real estate, but this is France, so it still costs a lot.)
So while it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the money, serving champagne is certainly not thoughtless. Sure, we’re lucky enough to be able to buy it off the shelf (or online from first vine), but the amount of work it took to get the bottle there is amazing — a great gift and a great story to go with it. Remember, presentation can make all the difference, whether with good chocolates (especially if they’re from our friends at Biagio Fine Chocolate), or by making something special to serve with it. Either way – we think it’s definitely worth it. But it still won’t make up for sending an e-card!
This week we’re bringing you a special Valentine’s recipe from Peter Brett, pastry chef at Circle Bistro in DC and cake-maker extraordinaire. (Check out his amazing website if you’re looking for a cake for an event, or if you just want to dream and drool.) It’s a Nutella semifreddo, which is like ice cream, but doesn’t require an ice cream maker. You need to make it the night before and freeze it so it sets up for serving, and the hazelnut brittle can even be made a few days before that. Don’t be afraid of making the caramel for the brittle, it’s easy and just takes a few minutes. And it adds a beautiful sweet crunch to the semifreddo. You freeze it in a loaf pan, the same one you use for your meatloaf, or buy a foil pan at the grocery store. And you can use the leftover Nutella on toast the next morning for a wonderful breakfast. Or just eat it straight from the jar with a spoon like we do!
Do you even need to ask what to serve with it? Champagne Bernard Mante Brut goes beautifully with chocolate. It’s dry but not bone-dry. And at $32 it’s a great value. What’s more, its yeasty undertones already make you think of dessert! Bernard and Christianne Mante would love nothing more than to make your Valentine’s Day even more special – a lovely wine from lovely people. In addition to the Brut, first vine carries a few other wonderful champagnes from the Mantes you may want to try; made even more special by the fact that first vine is the only US importer of Bernard Mante champagnes:
—Champagne Bernard Mante Extra-Brut ($35): Drier and less fruity and floral than the Brut, so it has extra elegance and even a bit of earthiness. Its slight acidity allows it to stand up to all kinds of food — a fabulous aperitif or accompaniment to a meal.
—Champagne Bernard Mante Brut Grande Reserve ($38): Kept in the cellar longer than the Brut, this one is rounder and more full-bodied, with more complex fruit flavors. It’s really a fabulous blend with everything you’re looking for in a premium champagne. Try it as an aperitif, with meals, or with desserts.
—Champagne Bernard Mante Rosé ($40): Rosé wines are made from red wine grapes and get their color from resting on the grape skins a short time. Rosé champagnes are also made from red wine grapes but don’t touch the skins — instead, a little red wine is added after removing the yeast sediment. The result is unique and delicious, and looks spectacular in the glass – just perfect for Valentine’s Day. (Limited quantities)
Nutella Semifreddo with Milk Chocolate Sauce
1 cup (4 oz) skinned hazelnuts (see note)
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup Nutella
1/3 cup warm milk
3 egg whites
2 cups heavy cream, very cold
Oil a baking sheet and set it aside. In another baking pan, toast the nuts until brown and fragrant, in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan every five minutes so they don’t burn. While the nuts are toasting, begin making a caramel. Put the water and half a cup of sugar in a small heavy saucepan, preferably one that’s not non-stick so you can see the color. Place over medium heat and gently swirl the pan a few times to help the sugar dissolve. When the mixture comes to a rolling boil, put the lid on for a minute to help dissolve any sugar on the sides of the pan. Uncover, lower the heat, and continue to cook without swirling until the caramel is a nice dark amber color but not burnt (if you’re using a candy thermometer, that would be 270-280 degrees F). Stir in the warm nuts and spread on the oiled baking sheet. Cool, break into chunks, and grind in a food processor to a coarse praline powder (or put it in a plastic bag and crush it with a heavy pot). Divide in half.
Mix the Nutella with the warm milk in a medium bowl and set aside. Put the egg whites in another medium bowl and begin to mix on low speed with an electric mixer. When they start to foam, increase the heat to high. When you see soft peaks form, begin pouring in the remaining quarter cup of sugar, and continue to beat until the egg whites are stiff and shiny. Set them aside. In still another bowl, beat the cream (you don’t have to clean the beaters if you do the egg whites first) until it has soft peaks (they flop over when you lift the beaters up).
Lightly oil a loaf pan or line it with plastic wrap. Gently fold half the beaten egg whites into the Nutella, then half the praline, then the remaining egg whites. Gently fold in the cream until it’s all mixed. Layer the Nutella mixture and the remaining praline alternately, three layers of Nutella and two of praline.
Press a sheet of plastic wrap on the top and freeze overnight. If you used plastic wrap to line the pan, unmold the semifreddo onto a plate and remove the plastic. Otherwise, slice it and serve it from the pan (you can dip the pan in warm water for a few seconds to loosen the semifreddo). Serve with warm Milk Chocolate Sauce.
Milk Chocolate Sauce
8 oz milk chocolate
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee powder
Chop the chocolate into small pieces and put them in a small bowl. Bring the water to a boil, stir in espresso, and pour over chocolate. Stir to melt.
Note on hazelnuts: It’s possible you may not be able to find skinned hazelnuts. If they still have the skins on them, go ahead and toast them as described in the recipe. Then take them out of the oven and let them cool a few minutes, then rub them in a clean kitchen towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Don’t worry if there’s still some skin on them, that’s OK. Keep the nuts warm while you make the caramel.