Winter Whites: These wines are built for cold weather

The old “rules” that you drink white wine in the summer and red in the winter long ago left the building. “People should just drink what they want and what they like,” said Alan Richman, owner of Sasha’s Wine Bar & Market in Clayton. So while you can still enjoy a crisp, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc with your sushi in the middle of December, the fall and winter seasons bring with them heartier, cold-weather foods that are ripe for richer, fuller-bodied white wines. Vegetables like roasted butternut squash, turnips and sweet potatoes or dishes such as a comforting French onion soup or savory vegetable stew paired with bigger, more robust white wines make the transition from the pool to the fireplace a little more pleasant.

Now, if it were only as easy as saying one specific wine is a great wintertime white. Not to fear, though; this just calls for more experimentation! “When matching heartier foods with white wines, there can be more important variables to consider than simply richness or intensity of a particular dish,” explained Andrew Traughber, owner of Bon Vivant Wines in
Columbia, Ill.

For example, he said, “Pork tenderloin and root vegetables with a big nutty Chardonnay might be nice, but if you changed that to pork with an apple chutney and sautéed greens, the Chardonnay could be a bit clumsy.” In that case, “a dry or off-dry Riesling would have the deft to handle meat, fruit and bitter vegetables in tandem,” he said. “A dry Riesling and New World Chardonnay are on opposite ends of the spectrum of acidity, body and alcohol; they both have their virtues at the table with certain hearty fare.”

Traughber also noted that sometimes a contrast in body and intensity of flavor between food and wine works really well. “Chardonnay from Burgundy might be a classic with lobster,” he said, “but a more delicate and precise wine such as Muscadet from the Loire or Grüner Veltliner from Austria can cut through the richness of the dish and refresh the palate for another bite.” Translation: It’s up to your palate to decide your preferences.

Confused yet? Don’t be. There are many fail-safe white wines that can generally stand up well to the foods of the autumn and winter seasons. When in doubt, Traughber suggested sipping Champagne because “you get relative intensity of flavor, and rich, toasty, yeasty character balanced by palate-cleansing acidity and bubbles”; Chenin Blanc from Savennières and Vouvray; Burgundian Chardonnay; German and Austrian Riesling; and Southern Rhône varieties.

Leon Bierbaum, owner of Chez Leon in the Central West End, listed a host of delicious French whites that can stand up to fall and winter dishes. “The best time to enjoy shellfish is in the winter months,” he said. “A wonderful, natural accompaniment to oysters is Muscadet from the Loire Valley or Chablis, a white Burgundy made with Chardonnay grapes.” Bierbaum also suggested pairing an Alsatian Riesling or Gewürztraminer with choucroute garni, a classic Alsatian dish made with sauerkraut, Riesling and chicken stock. Bierbaum said the “spicy, yet a little sweet” Gewürztraminer pairs very well with other heartier sausage and pork dishes, as well as duck. “The classic French dish coq au vin is usually made with red wine, but is also quite nice when prepared with white wine. … In this case, Riesling from Alsace is a lovely accompaniment,” Bierbaum said.

When pairing white wines with heartier fall and winter foods, “California Chardonnay is the easy choice,” said Jon Parker, owner of Parker’s Table in Clayton. He explained that the Chardonnay grape can naturally produce a fuller-bodied wine without additional work in the winery. Parker said that the Chardonnay grape responds better than most to winemaker manipulation, such as oak aging and malolactic fermentation, “which can be a plus if not overdone.” The former process imparts vanillin and tannin; the latter achieves extra richness and flavors commonly referred to as toasty and buttery.

“Everyone has their own taste, and mine needs a counterbalance of crisp acidity to the fullness brought on by these winery techniques,” Parker said. He specifically recommended these California gems when enjoying fall and winter fare: Joseph Carr Chardonnay from Napa Valley, Calif., and Consilience Viognier from Santa Barbara. Other cool-weather whites Parker suggested are D’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Marsanne-Viognier blend from Australia and Cousiño-Macul Chardonnay from Chile. A perfect seasonal pairing, according to Parker, is root vegetables roasted with herbs and goat cheese and a white wine made from Rhône-based, fragrant grapes such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne – or a blend of all three.

While Richman noted that he is “primarily a red-wine drinker,” he has some favorite full-bodied, intense white wines that pair well with myriad fall and winter dishes. Some of his favorites are L’Ecole No. 41’s Sémillon-based wine from Washington state; Zaca Mesa Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley; and Melville Viognier from Santa Barbara, all of which “have a little more oomph to them,” he said. “I want more spice in my wine, so when I drink whites I prefer Gewürztraminer, Riesling or a more oaky Chardonnay.” So, what should you eat with these bigger whites? Richman suggested smoked fish such as salmon or trout, duck confit or a creamy, peppery crab cake. And, let’s not forget the cheeses. Richman said richer, full-bodied whites pair nicely with the double-cream Fromage d’Affinois or the delicious P’tit Basque, both from France.

Traughber’s favorite cold-weather meals include a variety of comfort-inducing, savory soups. “A beet salad to start and then any number of soups – wild mushroom, butternut squash, French onion – with crusty bread and a bottle of Chardonnay from the Mâconnais makes for a great fall meal.” Cheers to that.