By Doug Paulding
Picking a wine for the wintry season
Some people are creatures of habit. A friend of mine will order a crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of the season or outside temperature reading. Another friend is partial to dark, inky Zinfandels, even in the heat of August. I tend to eat food driven by my seasonal preferences – thick soups and stews in the winter and lighter, broth-y soups or gazpacho in the warmer seasons. I think wine selection should be no different. A Spanish Rosé or an Alsatian Pinot Gris is a lovely summertime, waterfront wine. In the heart of the winter, with snow on the ground and temperatures dipping into the single digits my desires turn to big hearty reds, and there are so many. What flavors do you like in a glass of wine? Each varietal usually leans toward a flavor profile but overlaps are everywhere in the grapes and in the production country or in the method of production.
Most Westchester and Fairfield wine consumers know their way around the main hearty red grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot could probably be readily identified by most semi-educated consumers in a blind tasting.
But virtually all the warmer wine production regions of the world are producing lesser known reds that can warm your heart on a blustery day.
In a restaurant I like to ask the bartender or sommelier if he has any unusual hearty reds. Most establishments will offer tastes of their selections by the glass. Asking to taste two or three before making your selection is not out of line. Make sure to ask if it was opened that day. Some lesser-known varietals can sit on a shelf and oxidize and lose their freshness and fruitiness. Tasting a few different types can steer you toward your desires.
Then there are the regions to consider. A good Pinot Noir from Burgundy will almost certainly be better than a similarly priced Pinot from Sonoma, although there can be exceptions. And a Chilean or Argentine Malbec will usually trump an equi-priced Malbec from other regions. Producers have recently learned which grapes grow best and which will produce better wines in their regions, and sometimes it’s not the grape that has been extensively planted there. Some regions have replanted established vineyards to introduce a grape more appropriate for the plot. Each region’s terroir, essentially the temperatures, rainfall amounts, exposures, winds, soil composition and microbiologicals present on the skin of the grape, all contribute to a regional uniqueness and eventual wine flavor profile.
Another huge consideration is the price. I regularly get asked, “Can you really tell the difference between a $20 bottle and a $50 bottle, retail”? With rare exceptions, I could quite easily pick out the more expensive bottle. The better wine comes from better plots, better hand-selected fruit, better production methods and better oak aging and more skilled blending.
Victor Schoenfeld, head winemaker of Golan Heights Winery in Israel and Israel’s most influential wine consultant, told me, “It takes very few ‘off’ grapes to negatively affect a batch. For our better wines we hand harvest and carefully pick over the clusters to remove suspect grapes.”
Lapostolle winery in Chile brings in dozens of local women to hand de-stem and pick over each grape bunch ensuring ripe, consistent fruit in its signature red wine, Clos Apalta. A well-made wine shows good fruit against a backbone of other intangibles that give the wine structure, texture and age-ability. Better wine makers order their aging barrels with different degrees of char in the barrels, which is a consequence of the heating by flame and bending the wooden staves during cooperage. The degree of char will impart pepper, spice, licorice or leather, which all contribute to the depth and layers of a high quality wine.
If I’m with a group, I like to open several bottles of different types or regions at once and compare them. Tuscany’s main grape, sangiovese, will typically taste of red cherry and/or raspberry with tobacco notes and a silkiness in the mouth. Grenache, from southeast France (Garnacha in Spain) will show red fruit supported by a spiciness. Cabernet Franc, usually used to round out Bordeaux blends by adding a tannic dustiness, can be lovely as a single red fruit varietal. Petit Syrah is far from petite in flavor. The word “petit” comes from the size of the grape and it’s capable of packing powerful dark fruit flavors with black pepper, licorice and leather. Gamay, the main grape used in Beaujolais, is known for its fresh red cherry flavors. Look for the Beaujolais crus, which show some darker fruit and oak influence. Petit verdot is a minor grape that will add a floral or perfumey quality to a cuvée, even in very small quantities. Adding this grape to a blend will add nuance and flavor. Nebbiolo, northern Italy’s prevalent red, is dense and dark, sometimes plummy. Syrah (shiraz in Australia) should give off dark fruit with a peppery spiciness and leather.
Years ago the only way to taste a wine was to buy it. Now wine stores all over the region offer free wine tastings on a regular basis. If you’re buying by the case, I know of store owners who will open up a bottle on the spot for your approval. Many restaurants now host theme-based wine dinners on slower nights where you can try various wines and producers. And there are many wine courses offered that are not just for professionals in the industry.
There is a world of flavors and a full spectrum of winemaking styles out there. A few good friends, a roaring fireplace, a well-made meal and some big, hearty reds – that’s how I embrace the season.