Thoughts of the light whites and the nice barbecue Rosé wines pretty much fly out the window with rest of summer and fall. After all, that's how wine connoisseurs welcome in the new season, isn't it?
We all have our favorite winter comfort foods. Perhaps it's the special chili you make on weekends with the game on, or maybe it's the slow-cooker you pull out of storage to use it once again for the beef stew for which you're famous. Then there is the prime rib roast to think of during the holidays, or even the braised short ribs that fall off the bone with barely a touch. The list goes on, but you get the point. These aren't your wimpy dishes!
Hearty Winter Wines
These foods need wines to be able to stand up to them. That Sauvignon Blanc with subtle lemon will get ploughed by the spicy chili with cheese…it doesn't stand a chance. So think big. Think rich, think powerful. This is the time of year that thoughts turn from crisp whites or bright, flavorful Rosés to robust Syrah, luscious Cabernet Sauvignon, or the powerhouse Petite Sirah.
First up is Cabernet Sauvignon. It's the "king of reds" so we need to give it its due. Cabernet is a fruity wine with a heavier dose of tannins than the lighter red wines. A typical Cabernet will have dark fruit (think plum, cassis, blackberry, boysenberry) and perhaps a little herbal quality as well. Since this wine is usually fermented in oak, flavors of vanilla, dill, caramel, toast, and coffee will be an integral part. Some Cabs put a back seat to the fruit in trade for the oak characteristics. As far as a food pairing, the classic one is steak. Beef. Think "Cab and cow" and you get the picture. A good fillet mignon seared just right with the perfect Cabernet is almost unbeatable. Some classic Cabernets from Napa Valley are always favorite, but if you can get your hands on an aged French Bordeaux you have a special treat in store for you!
Next up we have Syrah. Syrah is a very flavorful red wine with origins from the Rhone Valley from France. This wine is unmistakable, and some people don't like it because it is so full of flavor. Syrah has notes of cured meats, smoke, coffee, blueberry and iron oxide. It's a very flavorful wine that needs very flavorful food. If you are a fan of lamb, then you are in luck. This is a wonderful pairing for leg of lamb or lamb riblets. If you're a vegetarian, try some braised Shitake mushrooms with a little savory and thyme. Look for wines from the Rhone Valley (Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, or St. Joseph) or something from the central coast of California. There are many good producers making some big Syrahs from this area (Andrew Murray, Pisoni, Qupé to name a few).
How about a Zinfandel? With all the fresh, ripe, jammy fruit how can you pass on these gems? Zinfandels can run a large gamut…from the fresh and fruity, low alcohol and red raspberry to the ultra-ripe, jammy and sweet. For savory dishes try the lighter style zins. The lower alcohol content pairs nicely with a large variety of food, but Italian red sauces do especially well. Eggplant parmesan, meatballs, or even just plain old spaghetti is a wonderful pairing. The fresh fruit just brings out the tangy acid in the tomato-based sauces. On the other hand, the sweeter, gooey zins will pair well with cheeses and chocolate desserts…so whichever you choose, you will have a winner. Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and Napa Valley in California are famous for their zins. Try Mendocino County, Rosenblum, Ridge, Rafanelli, and Ravenswood.
Then there's the big-daddy of them all-Petite Sirah! This wine is a rich, big, dark, and brooding wine. The tannin content is sky-high given its juice to skin ratio, which means that this wine needs big food. This wine is dark fruit (plum, dark cassis, prune) and displays coffee and dark chocolate flavors as well. Petite Sirah's look like someone is pouring ink to your glass. When you swirl, the dark purple color almost stains the glass. For food, think braised meats served in their own reduction stock. Maybe that beef stew with hearty potato that's been cooking all day is up to the task for this wine. Also, Petite Sirah is superb for darkening sauces on the stovetop. These wines come from warmer climates…so think parts of Sonoma County like Alexander Valley. There are some good ones coming from Washington state as well.
White as a Winter Wine
Where is the white, you ask? Is winter for red only? No, but it takes a special kind of white to be able to stand up to big dishes. Chardonnay comes to mind…but not just any chard. A Chardonnay with ripe fruit and big overtones of tropical melon and lemon meringue with the acidity to match can be the perfect pairing. Those butter mashed potatoes or clam chowders beg for a big white like this. If you like the buttery Chards then you are in luck as well, since these wines tend to be pretty powerful in flavor. Try to stay away from rich meat or red sauces, but other fare will do just fine. There are many, many Chardonnays out there from nearly everywhere. Try some Napa Valley or Russian River Chardonnay, Rombauer, Jordan, Kistler and Cakebread.
Most importantly, don't be afraid to try your own ideas out in the wine shop. Talk to your local wine merchant about what you're doing, what you're cooking, etc. These people live and breathe wine, and are always there to help you. Don't be afraid to fail. You can't do perfect pairings all the time. But, learn from mistakes and move forward and you too will have your arsenal full of hearty winter wines for your winter hearty dishes. Enjoy!