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Big red wines as a Valentine treat

It'll be Valentine's Day soon, and that means a chance to share a special bottle of wine with a special someone. Or maybe to share it with your friends. Or maybe with yourself. But spend an extra buck or two and get yourself a powerhouse winter red wine.

It'll be Valentine's Day soon, and that means a chance to share a special bottle of wine with a special someone. Or maybe to share it with your friends. Or maybe with yourself, as you toast the absurdity of a holiday clearly hatched by this nation's choco-industrial complex.

I say it's a holiday best spent at home, before a crackling fire, but choose whatever location you like. What matters is finding a big, profound wine to help enjoy the moment.

It's winter. That means deep red wines, and even if you're not a fan of such wines, it's time to dabble. It's also time to spend an extra couple bucks for a wine that will leave memories.

Valentine wines are a personal thing. Myself, I nominate big Piedmontese reds: Barolo and Barbaresco, which manage to be simultaneously delicate and tough and limitless. Read into that what you like. I think they send a good message.

We wanted to find some other options, though, so I convened a tasting panel to help sort through our February options.

The tasting was split into three categories, encompassing more than 20 wines. Cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends, notably from the New World, seemed a good starting spot for fireside reds. Then we threw in a random sampling of curious blends and varieties: everything from South African pinotage blends to Portuguese castelão.

Finally, the folks at P.S. I Love You — which touts the virtues of petite sirah, that rising star of Californian grapes, lobbied hard that its big, inky flavors and tannins made it a good candidate. They didn't mention the Valentine's Day connection, but we appreciated their recommendations.

King Cab
Our panel of tasters wasn't really jazzed by the prospect of an evening's worth of big Cabernets, and plenty of clunkers emerged. The Argentinians didn't fare well, and one taster dismissed an Australian contender with "no taste. Zip. Nada."  But we also found winners up and down the price scale.

The Estancia 2002 Paso Robles Cabernet sauvignon ($15) defied expectations. It's not a huge wine, but it had a big, full body and bright fruit. A Concannon 2002 Central Coast Selected Vineyard ($12) also revealed pretty hints of citrus and melon in addition to the usual red fruit, and offered an almost sweet, creamy feel.

There was lots of praise for the Franciscan Oakville Estate 2001 Magnificat Napa Valley, and at $40 there darn well should've been. Said one taster: "The nose hints of ant spray — sickly sweet and probably deadly." She meant that in a nice way. It offered tart berries, currants, leather — and a big whopping dose of tannins. In other words, it needs time to mellow. Maybe for another year's fireside moment.

Nothing petite about it
The "petite" in petite sirah refers to its genetic lineage (syrah is its apparent daddy), not its taste. These usually result in huge, inky, tannic wines. They're a match for grilled and barbequed meat, and smoky notes really do help offset a warm, wintry night.

Among less expensive bottles, the Pedroncelli 2000 Dry Creek Valley ($14) was a winner. "Like strawberry marshmallows!" said a taster. I had thought blackberry, but some bright acid and a delicate structure (and 20 percent zinfandel) help compose a very pretty wine. The omnipresent Bogle 2002 California ($10) got marks too.

If you're opening your wallet a bit farther for that special someone, the Trentadue 2002 Alexander Valley ($28) is a great pick and a big lunk — or "a hairy bodybuilder," as I wrote down — of a wine. It absolutely needs food, as most of the petite sirahs do. But the 25 percent syrah in the blend offers up a whiff of brine and a gorgeous balance. The Vina Robles 2002 Paso Robles Jardine Vineyard ($26) isn't so big a brute, but it gives blueberry and brambly notes, with some pepper to punch it up. Both wines linger in your mouth. The very model of a winter red.

Here and there
The rest of the batch was uneven. Some pricey South African offerings all but disgusted the tasters. (I assume "Bleh!" in one-inch-high handwriting isn't a compliment.)

But a cheap South African blend also brought some of the evening's best comments. (Disclosure: It was a ringer. I've been drinking down this wine for two months now.) The Wolftrap 2003 ($9, Vineyard Brands), made by Boekenhoutskloof, is one of those crazy mixes — with the southern French cinsault grape doing a lot of the heavy lifting. But it's brooding and expansive, with the sunny flavors of the Rhone and the funky dark fruit of the South African pinotage grape spun together flawlessly.

A José Maria da Fonseca 1999 Periquita Azeitão ($9, Palm Bay Imports) was another surprise.  Made from the castelão grape, it manages to pair tangy fruit with bacon and smoke. Somehow it all works.

Only you know what your (and maybe your special companion's) wine tastes are. But if you plan to hunker down by a fire for Valentine's Day — or anytime before spring arrives — don't hesitate to uncork the biggest, richest bottle of red you can get your hands on.