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Posted at 9:58 AM ET, 02/11/2009

Special Wines for a Special Someone

By Julia Beizer

Wine and romance go together at Cork Wine Bar. (Sean McCormick)

Chocolates from CVS, boxers with hearts on them -- there are lots of ways a Valentine's Day gift can go oh-so-wrong. But there's something just right about toasting your loved one with a special bottle of wine. All you have to do is find the right one. To aid in the search, we called four-star restaurants, neighborhood bistros and cool wine bars and challenged sommeliers and beverage directors to recommend a special-occasion wine that retails for around $20. All of the selections below are available commercially around town and cost between $11 and $25; check wine-searcher.com for locations.

He may be the beverage director and sommelier at one of Frederick's fanciest establishments, but Volt's Neil Dundee still talks like a man of the people. "Before I was in the fine dining world of wines, I was there slumming it in the stores," he says. "I looked around out there and drank a lot of great wines under $20." For Valentine's Day, he suggests Chile's Santa Emma Reserve Merlot, a wine he once poured for a sweetheart to accompany a chocolate-y Valentine's dessert. "After [the movie "Sideways"] came out, everyone hated merlot for so long. It took such a beating," he said. "This particular wine comes out with all these beautiful raspberry and chocolate flavors." It can be paired with a main course or dessert. Looking for a white? Dundee recommends Nora Albarino, an "up and coming" white grape from Spain with a crisp flavor that's close to a Pinot Grigio. "For the price point, it just rocks out," he says, noting that most albarinos can be found for under $15.

You may have seen Sebastian Zutant tooling around Proof at the wheel of the restaurant's champagne trolley, but when it comes to Valentine's Day, he skips the bubbly for the 2006 Alto Moncayo Veriton from Campo de Borja in northwest Spain. "It's really opulent, with darkly intense fruit," he says of the 100 percent garnacha wine. "It has a warmth to it. It's the kind I'd like to drink on a cold night." He pauses. "It'd be a good wine for getting down next to the fi-yah."

Il Cuore wines seem destined for Valentine's Day. Not only does the name mean "the heart" in Italian, but the wines' labels also feature an original heart-shaped design by acclaimed artist Dan Rizzie. Still, you might be surprised to learn that Domaso's Christianna Sargent didn't select Il Cuore's Rosso Classico blend just because of its adherence to theme. "It's $11.99," at the Arlington Hotel Palomar's wine shop Domasoteca, she says. "And for such an inexpensive wine, it's got a great flavor to it." Expect elements of fresh raspberry and an explosion of plum in the mixture of syrah, zinfandel, carignane and sangiovese. For Domaso's Valentine's Day meal, Sargent has paired this particular wine with a duck dish.

Mark Slater is the keeper of Citronelle's massively extensive and expensive wine cellar, where bottles of grand cru white burgundy sell for $150 to $5,000 each. So which white burgundy does Slater consider "my house wine at home"? The 2005 Sebastian Roux, which he picks up for $19.99 at Trader Joe's. "That's cheaper than I can buy it at the restaurant," he says. "I don't know how those guys do it." Slater calls the Roux "a fine chardonnay that drinks well," perfect for sharing with or without a meal.

There's something to be said for avoiding Valentine's Day cliches, but sometimes rules are made to be broken. "Rose wines are nice for Valentine's Day -- they're not too complicated, they're tasty and fun," advises Andrew Myers, the sommelier at CityZen, "You may think you look like a rube if you buy rose because white zin is such garbage, but if you can show your date that you're hip enough to find a smokin' good legitimate rose, then you should look pretty cool." He offers a rose from Cantina del Taburno, in Italy's Campania region, a crisp wine with dried strawberry flavors. Need something else? "For a red, I'd go with something that you can say and sound sexy like the Monte Degli Angeli Barolo. Seriously, strap on a fake Italian accent and say that ... you will score. Guaranteed."

"A lot of people associate celebrations -- which Valentine's Day certainly is -- with champagne," says Andrew Stover, sommelier for Oya and Sei and the man who designed the blend for the private label wine Yin (available at the restaurants and for retail sale at Cowgirl Creamery). Since champagne was out of the question, given our budget restraints, Stover suggests Paringa's Sparkling Shiraz, instead. The bubbles make it fun; the shiraz brings to mind flavors like black forest cake. "It's just a really easy drinking wine. Plus, it's so good with chocolate." The wine's price ranges from $8 to $12 at area stores.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but anticipation makes it beat that much faster. That's why Komi's Kathryn Bangs picks Crivelli's 2007 Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato from Italy's Piedmont region, which she describes as "wildly floral with light young fruit. It's light in body and I like to give it lots of air. I open it in the morning and drink it at night."

"This wine is a bit of a tease," says Cafe Atlantico beverage director and sommelier Jill Zimorski of Barchetto D'Acqui, the Piedmont sparkler she chose for the Valentine's challenge. The light red/deep pink beverage can serve as either an aperitif or a dessert wine and pairs beautifully with chocolate. Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre agrees; he selected this wine for his Valentine's Day column this week.

Everyone's looking for value these days, and "right now, Gigondas has the most bang for the buck," says John Wabeck, the sommelier at the new Inox restaurant in Tysons Corner. If he were picking up a bottle of wine on the way home, Wabeck says, he'd go for the 2006 Durban Gigondas, which comes from France's Rhone Valley. "It's got a decent amount of alcohol," he explains, "and if the weather's cool, it's a nice crisp wine."

Wine and romance go hand in hand for Diane Gross, owner of Cork Wine Bar. She and her husband and co-owner Khalid Pitts spent a lot of time tasting wines in the early days of their relationship. She chose Chateau la Caminade Cahors La Commandery 2006, a malbec and merlot blend. "It has a rustic quality. A little fruit up front -- some prune and plum -- but it also has some leathery tobacco flavor to it," says Gross, adding that it also has a long finish and a nice tannic structure. "It's a food-friendly wine. It's good with what I think a lot of people like to eat on Valentine's Day, like a good steak or braised lamb."

On an ideal Valentine's Day, says Restaurant Eve's Todd Thrasher, "I'd be cooking a dinner for my wife." Instead, they'll both be working -- he serving wine at Eve, she running the Majestic a few blocks away. But he knows what he'd like to be drinking: sparkling wine. "When you think of bubbles, it sparks memories of holidays and fun," he says. "I think bubbles are the best way to celebrate." For around $20, he says, "you can't get champagne, so I'd do the 1+1=3 Cava." To go with the cava, Thrasher suggests ... French fries. "The salt with the bubbles is so good," he says. "When my wife and I first got married, we'd have French fries and champagne all the time."

-- Julia & Fritz

By Julia Beizer  | February 11, 2009; 9:58 AM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs, Restaurants  
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