Heartier winter cooking demands more robust, complex wines

By John Rittmaster                                                                     

In spring, they say, a man’s fancy turns to love. In winter, it’s more like I just fancy staying warm. We live in California where it doesn’t really get very cold but, for someone who grew up on the East Coast and has spent many winters in places like Vermont, northern Ontario, Canada and northern Japan, I sure feel it more here. I also feel that when the weather turns chilly, I want to hunker down, hibernate and spend most of my time in a warm kitchen. So it is, while stalking around in my woolen slippers and fleece, I turn my attention from the backyard grill to the oven and stove to prepare fare that warms the body as well as the heart. With me that means leaving behind the primary, exuberant flavors of fresh, flavorful ingredients from the garden and replacing them with more developed, complex flavors arrived at by using lower, more sustained levels of heat over longer periods of time. In other words, in the warmer weather, it’s nice to salt and pepper a good steak and throw it on a very hot grill for a few minutes and serve it nice and rare with some grilled veggies from the garden and a fresh salad. In the winter, I might use a bigger cut of beef, sear it and then braise it over low heat for many hours to develop not only a more flavorful meat but a sauce rich in highly complex flavors that really sticks to the ribs.

I handle wine the same way. In spring and summer I go through frightening amounts of lighter white wines and Rosé. Some of the empties I remember seeing in the recycling this year included many bright, aromatic whites from southern and northern Italy, crisp American and French Sauvignon Blancs, German and Austrian Rieslings, Chardonnay from all over (but with no oak seasoning) and an ocean of delightfully dry, spicy Provencal Rosés. The reds of summer were often rich in texture and heft but often younger and more linear.

But once the rain arrives (assuming it ever does), I find myself rummaging through the back of the cellar to find wines with richer textures, broader tannins and layered, complex flavors. In other words, while this past summer I might have reached for Fattoria Felsina’s wonderful 2011 Chianti Classico from the heart of Tuscany to go with the smoky grilled heirloom tomato pasta sauce I made for some ravioli, in winter I am decanting the same cantina’s 2009 Chianti single-vineyard Riserva. Even though both are made of 100% Sangiovese, the former is a vivid purple with the aromas of plums, cherries and violets while the latter is focused on a duskier, spicier personality that has the tannin and acidity to stand up to the richness of a braised oxtail ravioli.

One of my favorite grape varieties, all year long, is the Nebbiolo grape from Piedmont in northwestern Italy. In the warmer weather, I like Nebbiolo at its most basic, labeled as Nebbiolo Langhe or Nebbiolo d’Alba. It’s a simple grape-y wine with assertive tannins that can really handle those burgers and ribs. When the weather turns cold, I reach deep down deep for the best Nebbiolo there is, known as Barolo, Barbaresco (or a host of other names depending on where they’re grown). These wines, especially with some bottle age, offer up bewitching aromas and amazingly deep, satisfying flavors.

Cabernet enthusiasts can use the same seasonal logic. In summer, drink a young Napa or Sonoma Cab for its lively fruit and lustrous tannins with your grilled T-bone. In winter, reach for a bottle where some time in the cellar has burnished some of its edges and allowed for more secondary, non-fruit aromas to emerge—great with your roast. Pinot Noir lovers? Drink some of the really fun, fruit-filled 2012s that are out there right now from California and Oregon with those grilled rosemary-scented lamb chops and save the fine 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin from Burgundy for your soul-warming slow-roasted lamb leg.

There are some wines that transcend the seasons. Champagne and sparkling wine, for example, are great any time of the year with any sort of food. In summer, served ice cold, bubbles refresh and replenish while we all know there is nothing better with which to warm the cockles and add the right touch of celebration than a nice flute of something grand.

Bonne saison!


John Rittmaster is the owner/partner at Prima Vini Wine Shop located at 1522 N. Main St. in Walnut Creek. To contact John, email him at john@primavini.com or call him at (925) 945-1800.


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