Winter wines that pair perfectly with cold-weather foods

Summer is behind us and so are occasions to toast with a fruity, refreshing and light glass of wine in a casual outdoor setting. But though there’s now a bite in the air, don’t count your wine opportunities gone — in fact, a whole new season of wine-drinking enjoyment has just begun. According to local experts, a wealth of winter wines make perfect accompaniments to popular cold-weather cuisine and are available in a range of prices to please every pocketbook.

Richer wines

“In the colder weather, food shifts from lighter fish dishes, grilled items, and farm-stand vegetables to heartier winter fare like slow-cooked roasts, stews and braised meats,” said Chris Cree, certified master of wine and owner of 56 Degree Wine, a Bernardsville-based wine shop. “As a result, there’s a similar seasonal shift from lighter, crisper wines to those that are fuller, deeper and darker. The food and season dictate the wine we select.”

Cynthia Murray, vice president of marketing for The Bottle Shop in Spring Lake, agrees. “In colder months, we begin to crave bigger, richer, lustier wines — it’s a natural course,” she said.

The best way to help select the perfect winter wine for the occasion, says Gary Fisch, owner of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace with locations in Madison, Bernardsville and Wayne, is to ask the right questions. “It’s about understanding what’s going to be done with it,” he explained. “If you’re having wine with dinner at home or at a restaurant, what’s the menu? Are you bringing it to a party, and if so, what type of food will be served? Will it be consumed during the day or at night? And what’s your budget?”

Cree, Murray and Fisch offer some suggestions for making the most out of the market’s great selection of winter-worthy wines:

Red-letter day
Fisch said that heavier red wines have more tannin, a compound found in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, which give wine its bitterness, astringency and complexity, all qualities that help them stand up well to popular wintertime meat dishes. “Cabernet Sauvignon often has heavier tannins that can handle a lot of rich foods,” he said.

Great options are available locally in a range of styles, Fisch said, “everything from lighter Cabs like those made by Fog Mountain in California to bigger, richer and juicier Cabs like Go Figure,” Fisch’s own private label wine, which retails for about $30.

“Italian wines go particularly well with Italian food, especially rich and gamey winter dishes like grilled meats, stews, lamb and heavy pasta dishes with red sauce,” Fisch said. “Great choices include Super Tuscans, many of which are Bordeaux-style blends made throughout Central Italy.”

Others he recommended: “Il Fauno is a delicious Merlot/Cabernet/Cabernet Franc blend that retails for about $25, while Brunello, a wine made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes in the Tuscan town of Montalcino, is another great choice for grilled pork, sausages and stews.”

Farther north, he added, “the Piedmont regions of Barolo and Barbaresco produce Nebbiolo-based wines that can stand up to heavier foods.”

From the northeastern Italian region of Veneto, Murray enjoys Amarone, “which is perfect in the winter because it’s so deep and rich,” she said. “Enjoy it with braised beef or duck in a balsamic glaze, or after the meal with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese drizzled in truffle honey.”

Classic Italian
“These classic Italian wines are strong and intense with a lot of character and are from regions with many producers,” Cree agreed, which helps further ensure that options will be available, from $15 to $25 bottles of Dolcetto or Barbera from Piedmont to $50 to $100 wines from the Barolo and Barbaresco regions.

“Many French wines are also great full-bodied options in the colder-weather months, especially wines from Bordeaux and southern France’s Rhone Valley, all of which pair well with lamb, prime rib and dishes like crown roast,” Cree said.

In the Rhone Valley of France, “wines from the Châteauneuf-du-pape region, made mostly of the Grenache variety, are deep and savory with hints of spice and flowers,” Murray said. “They’re ideal for pork dishes, stews, roasts and winter chili, and can really stand up to spicy fare.”

Another popular wintertime wine variety is Malbec, “a grape which originated in France but which has since become the star of Argentina,” Murray said. “Malbec pairs well with any meat dish and, for a little more polish and less spice, try a Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.”

Elsewhere, “Australia offers some great full-bodied wines, and Spain has delicious Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat varieties that also drink well at this time of year,” Cree said.

Winter whites and special occasion wines
While our experts note that Pinot Grigio is a light and enjoyable white wine ideal for the summer, “Chardonnay is a bolder white that can handle heavier fish and chicken dishes in the winter,” Cree said. “Less white wine is consumed in the winter,” Murray said, “but a white Burgundy, made of 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, pairs well with richer fish dishes, chicken or fish prepared with butter or cream sauce, or creamy risotto.”

And around the holidays, when people enjoy more seafood and stone crabs, “we sell a lot of crisp, clean wines like Chablis and champagne,” Cree said.

Divine dessert wines
“For dessert, it’s all about sweetness,” said Fisch, who recommends lighter and less alcoholic Moscato from Italy, Hungarian-based Tokaji, or a sweeter-style Port, which pairs well with chocolate, cheese and nuts. Cree and Murray also favor Ports at dessert time, when wintertime pies, baked goods, puddings and mousses demand a sweeter and heavier companion.

“Port hails from Portugal and is a great dessert wine — it’s big and concentrated and perfect when you’re sitting by the fireplace nibbling on dark chocolate and nuts at the end of the evening; nice bottles of Port are also available starting at around $20,” Murray said. “Or keep things simple and carry the Italian Amarone right into the dessert course.”