WineInk: Winter Whites
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2014 Stony Hill Chardonnay It does not get much more old school in Napa chardonnay than Stony Hill. Producing chardonnay “same as it ever was” since 1952, this venerable winery has remained true to the minimalist philosophy of its founders, the McRae family, since before minimalist was a term of endearment. Aged in neutral oak, so as to let the fruit speak over the wood, this wine was layered, textured and rich, a result of the vineyard of its origin and not the tampering of man. A treasure and a treat, my only regret in hindsight is that perhaps I robbed the cradle as the wine, had I not poured it with my fried chicken, would have matured magnificently over the next decade.
Like most folks, once Thanksgiving comes and goes, my attention turns to red wines. Maybe it is just habit. Or perhaps I have been tainted by the dated mantra that one should put their dress whites in mothballs for the winter months. Whatever my deluded reasoning, it has denied me the pleasure of some terrific wine pairings during winter’s days of darkness.
This lesson was graphically illustrated last week when, on a drab January afternoon, I felt a need for comfort food. Fried chicken, cornbread and greens, a little sautéed spinach with scallions and dried cranberries were required to salve my soul. So, with spirit and purpose, I put the fixin’s together. Usually I would have picked a pinot noir to pair with my southern fried-victuals, but earlier in the week I had slipped a 2014 Stony Hill Chardonnay into the fridge with the vague notion that I might indulge in a little crab-fest over the weekend.
The chicken turned out crisp and moist, the cornbread warm and coarse and the greens were, well, green. But it was the chardonnay that provided both comfort and contemplation to the feast. The wine prompted me to rethink habits of the past and consider anew that perhaps I should be drinking more whites with my mid-winter meals.
Let me start by saying that, while I love rich and oaky chardonnay (and there is nothing wrong with that, you wine snobs out there), the Stony Ridge was anything but. Aged in neutral oak and reflective of the purity of the Spring Mountain vineyard from which it hails, the wine was well balanced, with enough acidity to meld well with the fat of the crispy skin on the bird. It also had the weight to stand side by side with the hearty elements of my decidedly substantial meal. And when I peeled the skin from the chicken and sliced a sliver of meat from the bone, it was obvious the wine and white meat were made for each other.
Why, I thought, instead of why not, should I drink slightly chilled whites on chilly nights with my winter repasts? First, the tried-and-true concept of how acidity in wine — those elements of crisp tartness and sour bitterness — complement food that are high in fat, came to mind. We crave heavy sauces and fatty foods in our winter meals. Stews, stroganoffs and the like. And wines that are high in acidity, if they have enough oomph and structure, work hand in glove with the dishes of the season.
I thought of the marsanne and roussanne based wines from France’s Rhône Valley. These wines have texture and richness and boast obvious acidity. A starchy potato soup with freshly made bread and churned butter, a fish stew or a even a thick, creamy, Béchamel-based cheese sauce will all play well with the heartier white wines from the region.
While we are talking France, the wines of Alsace, particularly slightly off-dry riesling (those with just a hint of sweetness) have a long history of pairing well with the robust dishes of the Black Forest territory of France and Germany. Try a spiral cut honeyed ham and an Alsatian riesling or perhaps a spicy gewürztraminer with a pork loin roasted in apple sauce and you may decide that winter is your favorite season for white wines. Oh, and if you can find a way to experience a highly potent Pinot Gris from Alsace’s Zind Humbrecht (in excess of 15 percent alcohol) with seared foie gras, you will come to know the power of the food and white wine pairing paradigm.
And back to that oaky chardonnay. While the Stony Hill Chardonnay is based upon the unadulterated flavors of the fruit, that does not mean that heavier, richer chardonnay from Burgundy, the Barossa or Napa, tempered in toasted oak, does not have a place in this world. Some may call these wines flabby, but there are times when a buttery feel in the mouth and hint of smoky vanilla on the nose hit the right note.
And finally, I thought of rosé, the “it” wine of summer. Few twist the caps on rosé once the calendar turns a page past September, much less December. Why would one drink a wine from the summery shores of coastal France or Spain or California in the season of snow? Precisely because they can euphemistically transport us, in our minds, via our palates, to those very places.
Yes, the white wines of summer can certainly warm a winter’s day.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.