WineInk: Winter Wines
A new white wine pairing paradigm for the season
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” Nat King Cole sings each year when the seasons change, and we are on the cusp of Christmas. While we have been a bit slow in our transition to winter this year here in Aspen, the temps have been cool nonetheless and it got me to thinking a bit about the wines we choose to drink in the shortened days of winter.
Like most folks, once Thanksgiving comes and goes, my attention turns to more robust 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. Especially white wine pairings.
This lesson was graphically illustrated a couple of weeks ago when, following the traditional turkey dinner, I was blessed to have a fridge full of comfort food in the form of leftovers.
Isn’t the day after Turkey Day the best day for the meal anyway? A hefty turkey leg and a plate of white breast meat, some sautéed spinach with scallions and dried cranberries, and a few cornbread muffins were left after the dinner to salve my soul. So, with spirit and purpose, I pulled the fixin’s out and prepped a follow-up meal.
Generally, I would have picked a Pinot Noir to pair with my leftover victuals, and I had actually opened one (a 2018 Goldeneye “Ten Degrees” from the Anderson Valley — yum!) with the original meal. But earlier in the week, with a vague notion that I might indulge in a little crab fest over the weekend, I had slipped an Au Bon Climat 2019 Chardonnay Los Alamos Vineyard into the fridge. Alas, with no fresh crab on hand, I went with what I had and popped open the Chardonnay to pair with the day-old turkey.
Ah, but there was more to this pairing than just a wine with leftovers. The wine was in fact an homage to a great winemaker and wine character. This past May we lost Jim Clendenen, who in 1982 co-founded with Adam Tolmich the epic Santa Barbara County winery Au Bon Climat. Jim’s wines were as big and lush and complicated as his outsized personality. He leaves in his wake a better wine region than the one he found when he came to Santa Barbara from his native Akron, Ohio, and that is as fine a legacy as any person can hope for. He will be missed, but he leaves us wines to remember him by.
While the turkey was crisp and moist and the cornbread warm and coarse, the greens were rich and, well, green. But it was the Chardonnay that provided both comfort and contemplation to the feast. In addition to considering the contributions of Clendenen, 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 I love rich and opulent Chardonnay (and no, there is nothing wrong with that, you wine snobs) in any season. Aged in 50% new French oak and reflective of the purity of the Los Alamos vineyard from which it hails, the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 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 turkey leg and sliced a sliver of meat from the bone, it was obvious the wine and meat were made for each other.
Why, I thought, 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 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 even a thick creamy, Béchamel based cheese sauce will all play well with the heartier white wines from the region.
As long as 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. Winter, spring, summer and fall.
Try a spiral-cut honeyed ham and an Alsatian Riesling or perhaps a spicy Gewürztraminer with a pork loin roasted in apple sauce this Christmas 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, slightly smoky Pinot Gris from Alsace’s Zind Humbrecht with seared foie gras, you will come to know the power of the food and white wine pairing paradigm.
Lest we forget, this is a season of celebration, the best way to accelerate the fun is the racy feel of bubbles on the tongue. Anyone who has enjoyed the bracing beauty of a flute of Veuve Clicquot Champagne as the sun sets atop Aspen Mountain knows that white wines work wonders with the winter twilight. And it’s not just Champagne. Cava from Spain, Prosecco (see sidebar) and Franciacorta from Italy and the brilliant sparkling wines from Carneros in both Napa and Sonoma are as welcome in the dead of winter as they are in the heat of summer. This past year we welcomed a sparkler from “The new Champagne region” of the British Isles made by a producer dubbed Nyetimber to the mix. I’d happily sip their wines on the coldest day of the season.
But back to that Chardonnay. While the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay is based upon the unadulterated flavors of the fruit of the Los Alamos vineyard, 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.
Especially when Nat King Cole is crooning Mel Torme’s Christmas classic.
Perhaps no one knows more about the wines of winter than frequent Aspen visitor Donald Ziraldo. He founded Inniskillin Wines to produce Icewine in the Okanagan region of Canada. He introduced the world to the beauty of these late-late harvest wines that are made from grapes frozen in time by nature and harvested by hand while their sugars are concentrated at optimum levels. But that is another story
Now Ziraldo has gone back to his ancestral roots to produce a sparkling Prosecco from Glera grapes grown in the heart of Valdobbiadene, the place recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site honoring the source of these unique sparkling wines. Donald has a history in the region: “I first drank Prosecco when my mom and I visited her sister, who was a nun in Valdobbiadene, the epicenter of Prosecco. It was a cloudy, white, refreshing wine served in a large pitcher. Who would have known it would become the largest-selling wine from Italy?”
Ziraldo is back in town, taming the slopes with his graceful turns and filling the glasses of old friends with his new wines. ‘Tis the tenor of the season.