Last time on the VC blog, we talked about how to pair wine and food. That got me thinking about the kind of foods I've been craving and cooking this winter: hot soups, hearty braises served over polenta, and rich pear tarts. The rich comfort foods of winter definitely call for wines that can stand up to deep flavors. When looking for a wine to accompany your favorite winter dishes, think bold and powerful.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Often called the "King" of reds, Cabernet is the quintessential winter wine. A typical Cab has flavors of plum, cassis, and berries (from the grapes), and can also taste of vanilla, dill, toast, caramel, and coffee (from the oak barrels). It's a fruit-forward wine with a lot of tannins, those phenolic compounds that give wine its richness, but can also impart bitter, astringent tastes (To limit astringency overkill, decant your wine. Learn how here.) The tannins that are so prevalent in Cabs love to bond to the proteins in red meat, "softening" the tannins and making them less noticeable to the drinker. Because of this, the classic food to pair with Cabernet is beef. A highly esteemed Cabernet Sauvignon that responds well to aging is a French Bordeaux--an old bottle paired with a simple grilled steak and green salad is a true wintertime treat.
Syrah: Syrahs originate from the Rhone Valley in France, so if you want a traditional Syrah, look for wines made there, such as Chateauneuf du Pape or St. Joseph. Some people don't like Syrah because the flavors are so strong, but it is this quality of boldness that makes Syrah a great winter wine. Syrah is often characterized by tastes of coffee, blueberry, rust, and cured meats. It is strong flavors pair very well with the bold flavors of lamb, so try it with a roasted leg of lamb, or for a special treat, a rack of lamb.
Zinfandel: Zinfandels are a highly fruity, and so, very acidic wines. There are many times of Zin, from fresh-flavored, low-alcohol types to highly ripe, jammy and sweet times. Try the lighter dishes with heavy stews and soups: the acidic qualities work as a palate cleanser by ridding the mouth of the fats from the meat, and continually refreshing it so that the dish doesn't start to taste bland. The sweeter Zins pair very well with desserts and cheeses, which can be difficult to match. The Napa Valley, Mendocino County, and Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley are all known for producing exceptional Zinfandels.
Petite Sirah: Sometimes mistakenly spelled as "Petite Syrah," this is perhaps the biggest and boldest of them all. 90% of Petite Sirahs are made from Durif grapes, primarily grown in California, Arizona, France, and Israel. Durif grapes produce highly tannic wines with spicy, plummy flavors. If aged in oak barrels, Petite Sirahs can also gain an aroma of melted chocolate. Petite Sirahs are so dark and inky that they may appear to be staining the glass. When pairing, think of rich beef stew served in a sauce made from its reduced cooking liquid. Petite Sirahs also make excellent red wine reductions themselves, so try using them in your food, as well as with it.
Winter Whites: Reds are certainly easier to pair with winter dishes, and their hearty flavors and warmer serving temps make them the kind of wine most people reach for when it's cold outside. But certain whites can be big enough to stand up to winter too. Any kind of dish in a cream-based sauce goes better than white than red wine, because the acidic qualities of red can cause dairy products to curdle on the tongue. Though many types of white wine can work, Chardonnays, especially the rich ones with buttery flavors, which tend to pack more of a punch, are the obvious choice. Rich New England Clam Chowder, for example, pairs wonderfully with a buttery Chardonnay.
These are some great winter wines, but there are many more that you can discover with a little imagination, perhaps assisted by the resident expert at your neighborhood wine shop. The most important consideration is that the wine you chose can hold its own against the flavors of your winter dinner. So pick out a few to try, get that stew simmering, and enjoy winter the right way!