Have you ever wondered why soups, stews and pot roasts are so fabulously soothing when the weather’s crappy? I hear all the stuff about comfort food and the like, but isn’t it just because they warm the cockles of your soul? Winter seems to be the time when these dishes perform their best work, and heavier red wines share a similar calling. Why not combine them? When having a meal, try choosing your wine first, and then find something on a menu or in the fridge that complements it. This way, you feed the tummy and your soul-satisfying wine habit. That habit begins with the grapes. They are the foundation of red wines, providing the heavier or lighter heft in the juice. Each piece of fruit carries its own personality, featuring tannins and flavors that provide the backbone of the wine. Then the winemaker employs certain methods during the fermentation and aging processes to either enhance or reduce these traits. One technique allows the skins and seeds of the grape — where the tannins reside — to macerate longer together, giving the wine a heavier, more tannic taste. Some people love this flavor; some don’t. But it surely helps cold-weather chow warm the cockles even more.
A classic, winter food wine is Cabernet Sauvignon since it’s really difficult to slurp down a big, tannic beverage with cool summer fare. But introduce it to some beef stew, braised lamb shank or pork ragout and you’ve created a match made in heaven. As I’ve harped on before, you should drink what you like, but try to match delicate foods with lighter wines and heavier foods with equally weighty wines.
Zinfandel, although plenty will argue with me on this point, is a fabulous food wine. With its fruity, earthy qualities, my favorite pairing is pot roast. Pot roast is braised beef with a hearty, roasted “brown” flavor, simmered in wine or broth for hours until tender. It is the quintessential American meal, and pairs nicely with the only American wine, Zinfandel.
A trendy mover and shaker on the wine scene is Syrah. Its popularity has grown exponentially because it’s so approachable and friendly. Known as Shiraz in Aussie-speak, this grape provides a wide base of wine styles — from light and fruity to bold and spicy. The latter works best with richer, more flavorful dishes. Think Steak au Poivre. Yum.
A distant cousin, Petite Sirah, is a really fun wine. It has been blended into other wines for centuries to add cool, deep purple color and depth to an otherwise dull, drab mix. Alone, it produces deliciously grapey, easy drinking wines that love milder winter foods like baked beans or spare ribs.
Cabernet Franc, an underappreciated blending grape from Bordeaux, is peeking out of the bottle these days. Lighter in body than its brother Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s frankly more versatile and social as well. Because it’s somewhat new to the stand-alone spotlight, not all winemakers have perfected the wine yet, but those who have — look out, it’s good stuff. Cab Franc’s raisin and berry flavors lend it to beef-based soups, and nourishing ragouts with plenty of roasted vegetables, and even grilled steaks.