Right about now, as we’re hunkered down for winter, it’s a good time to think about which wines to pair with winter’s heartier fare.
Wait, you say. Is that really a thing? Isn’t wine a drink for all seasons?
Well, yes, wine is definitely an all-weather beverage. But by cold weather pairings, I mean matching the foods we instinctively crave when it’s cold outside with wines that go well with them.
But wait, you say. Aren’t the old-fashioned rules about which wine to drink with which food obsolete? Aren’t we free to drink what we like?
Well, yes, absolutely. But if you taste around a bit, you’ll find that some grape varieties and winemaking techniques produce wines that pair exceptionally well with fortifying, cold-weather foods.
Imagine a long-simmered stew or a steaming bowl of soup; a big pot of chili or a perfectly roasted chicken; a stick-to-your-ribs meat dish of lamb, pork or beef; or a hearty casserole. The light, lively white wine or fruity rosé that was so luscious at your mid-summer barbecue might pale beside these substantial cold-weather meals. But a rich, complex red or heavier white — now you’re talkin’!
If you look at the characteristics of the wine, you can find what you like while matching the intensity and heft of your winter meal. (The same goes for a warm-weather meal.)
The key is to understand what wine experts mean when they describe wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied — terms that tell how a wine feels in your mouth. The “body” or “weight” of a wine is largely determined by its alcohol content. A wine with an alcohol content of, say, 7% to 10.5% is considered light-bodied; 10.5% to 12.5%, medium-bodied; and over 12.5%, full-bodied. The U.S. government requires that winemakers show alcohol content on the label, which makes it easy to assess its body. If you can’t quite wrap your mind around the concept, think about the feel of low-fat milk versus whole milk versus half-and-half. That makes it easier, right?
In general, the full- and medium-bodied wines complement heartier fare, while the light-bodied wines tend to be overwhelmed by it. Want to enjoy your red wine with fish? Look at the red’s body. A richer fish like salmon (a year-round favorite) will pair well with a light-bodied red, like a Pinot Noir.
As serious wine drinkers know, though, lots of other qualities affect the character of a wine. One important one is acidity, aka the wine’s crispness, or tartness — its zing, if you will. The grape variety, together with the soil and climate where it is grown, determine acidity. “Crisp” wines are often paired with acidic foods, but a full-bodied wine with a little acidity can be a welcome balance to rich, hearty food (kind of like mustard with a hot dog).
Another component of red wine is tannin, a natural substance found in the skins (white grape skins are removed before processing, so tannin isn’t a factor in white wine). Tannin also affects how wine feels in your mouth: Low tannin gives a silky feel; medium, a velvety feel; and high, a dry, leathery feel, which can mellow with age. Tannic wines pair well with rich foods and are wonderful with red meat.
The tricky part is that the many factors — grape varieties, where they’re grown, and how they’re made into wine — combine in different ways and produce a dizzying menu of options. If you’re confused, you can always ask your local wine seller for guidance. I spoke with Carl Franco, co-owner of Francos Wine Merchants in New Canaan, and got these great pairing ideas for wintry fare.
Roast turkey or chicken — White: European or American full-bodied Chardonnay or, especially if the bird is basted in butter, crisp white Burgundy (a legendary Chardonnay). Red: light- to medium-bodied French or American Pinot Noir.
Filet mignon or other beef dish — Red: There’s a reason for pairing beef and red Bordeaux (a blend of full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and medium-bodied Merlot). Its tannins go beautifully with the rich beef. Less expensive: Argentinian Tempranillo or Spanish Rioja. Most whites will just be overpowered.
Ham — White: To balance the saltiness, a fruity German Riesling or an Alsatian wine. Red: Pinot Noir; Franco’s favorite here is a German Pinot Noir, Spatburgunder.
Chili — A great microbrewed beer is ideal. Red: Spicy Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon. White: Franco does like red, but if you are a diehard white drinker, I’ve seen chili paired with lively German Riesling.
Beef stew — Red: Sangiovese or Rioja, or depending on the spices in the dish, a peppery Shiraz.
Chicken pot pie — White: Chardonnay or a crisp, medium-bodied California Sauvignon Blanc to balance the rich sauce.
Pasta and red sauce — Red: Tuscan wine such as Chianti, or perhaps the medium- to full-bodied Sicilian grape, Nero D’avola.
Fish — White: Pinot Grigio, Italian Gavi, Falanghina. Red: Chianti, Sangiovese, sparkling Lambrusco.