Baby, it’s cold outside. With temperatures plummeting towards their low of the year, it’s time to hunker down. You’ve got to leave the house sometime and endure the bracing cold. But when you’re back, the only thing that can truly warm your bones is comfort food. Winter foods fit the bill—they tend to be heavier and have more meat and fat. Nothing quite satisfies like beef stew simmering all day in the slow cooker, or the bite of your secret chili recipe served while watching the game. To complete the meal, you’re going to need a wine that won’t get lost in the weight and richness of this rib sticking fare.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nd it’s not just the cold that’s setting in. The excesses of the holidays may be over, but the bills of December are just starting to arrive in your mailbox. Perhaps it’s time to show a little austerity as you begin the New Year. Yes, you can retroactively justify that $200 bottle of Dom Perignon you poured on New Year’s Eve by cost averaging with a few $20 bottles bought in January.
To get the best value, you’re going to need to take the road less traveled. There are many reasons for the high cost of the wines you know so well, such as the fame of the winery or the region. Today’s goal is to drag you past the display of Napa Cabs to the back of the shop where they keep the lesser known wines. The corners of your wine shop hold the wines of great value—the wines that you pay only for the quality of the juice in the bottle and nothing more.
Here are several wines that are either grapes you know but from a place you probably don’t, or wines that the regular wine drinker wouldn’t know about without several nights of homework. All of these wines stand up to winter fare. They are wines that have that extra oomph with a thicker texture or bigger fruit. And no, they are not all red wines. We’ll also offer up a few weighty whites along with one wine that I’ll bet you swore off when you first tasted it. All these unloved wines ask is that you give them the chance to win you over.
Let’s start with the world’s best loved red grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley is arguably the most famous home for Cabs, pushing the price of the most coveted wines from this region well beyond the average car payment. It’s hard to find a good Napa Cab for less than $50, let alone below $30. But James Creek Vineyards 2010 is priced at only $23. The price stems from the low cost of the vineyard land in Pope Valley, an unknown valley that runs parallel to the Napa Valley. It has the same soil types, but not as much access to the coastal fog. The hotter climate results in a Cab with the signature Napa style, but plump with soft fruit.
[quote float=”right”]The corners of your wine shop hold the wines of great value—the wines that you pay only for the quality of the juice in the bottle and nothing more.[/quote]For more great Cabernet Sauvignon, head to South Africa. While you weren’t watching, South African vintners used the last decade to vastly improve the quality of their wines. And you can feel better while you pour these wines knowing that South Africa is one of the “greenest” wine regions on earth. The style of South African wines tend to lie somewhere between the bigger wines of the West Coast and the complexity and structure of Europe’s best. One good example is Mulderbosch’s Faithful Hound 2012, at about $22. Faithful Hound has quietly caught the attention of wine critics worldwide. In recent years, Eric Asimov of the New York Times included it in his top 20 wine selection, and Wine Spectator placed it in their top 100 wine list.
When it’s time for meatloaf or a bacon cheeseburger, pull out South Africa’s Indaba Mosaic 2013, at about $12. You’ll find succulent flavors of blackcurrant, ripe brambly berry fruit, and dark chocolate with subtle spice notes in this Cabernet dominated blend. In the background is award winning consultant Bruwer Raats pulling the strings to ensure a perfect balance of fruit and acid.
Grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and neighboring volcanoes, Aglianico is slated to become Italy’s next big red. The best of these wines are dark and impenetrable with a dry, complex finish accented by the volcanic minerals drawn in by the vines. Fontanavecchia Aglianico 2009, at about $18, opens with aromas of underbrush, tilled soil, and black plum. The juicy palate delivers ripe blackberry and cherry accented by cinnamon, black pepper, and licorice. If you’re willing to open your wallet just a little more, step up to Fontanavecchia Aglianico Reserva 2007. This remarkable wine has more of everything found in the regular Aglianico. Normally, it is about $36 a bottle, however, an importer’s sale has lowered the price to around $32 a bottle in some North Carolina retail shops for a short time.
For further Italian values, look to the indigenous grapes of Southern Italy. But there is one bargain wine in Northern Italy worth pursuing. Dolcetto is the workhorse grape of the Piedmont region. The name means “little sweet one” in Italian. Before modern deterrents, Piedmont winemakers planted Dolcetto in the fields of the exalted Nebbiolo grape. Birds were attracted to its sweetness and left the Nebbiolo grape for the vintners. Families began making wine from Dolcetto, and it soon became the region’s everyday wine. Renato Ratti Dolcetto d’Alba Colombé 2012, at about $19, is a great example. It’s spicy and mildly jammy pomegranate and cherry flavors are supported by a dense frame.
For me, the most comforting of comfort foods is Mexican cuisine. This fare pushes every foodie hot button—chewy corn tortillas heaped with tender chicken slathered in sharp tomatoes, onions, and chilies. And all this topped with gooey cheese. Most of us have enjoyed Tempranillo and Garnacha but few have heard of Monastrell, a huge red. Juan Gil produces several Monastrell at different quality points. Your best bang for the buck is simply named Juan Gil Monastrell, priced at about $18. This wine is a slightly jammy beast that is pretty much a cross between Zinfandel and Shiraz. But don’t limit Juan Gil to Mexican food. Place this wine on the table with empanadas or any tomato based Spanish dish.
Aren’t white wines too light for winter fare? Not so. White wines vary just as much as the range in red Beaujolais to Shiraz. Seek out a winter white—a heavy white that relies more on texture than on fruit. These wines have a viscous quality and the oak in some provides additional structure. Heavy whites actually pair better than reds for winter dishes made from creamy sauces, or meals with main events like herbed roast chicken or braised pork.
If you like the heavy oaky California style, turn to Truchard Roussanne at about $24 for a great value. Everyone knows California Chardonnay, and its fame has pushed its prices into the $30 to $60 range. Few recognize the name Roussanne but there is a good chance that you’ve been enjoying it for years. Roussanne is one of the blending grapes used to add weight to the white wines of Southern France. Truchard had the insight to use Roussanne to produce the Napa Chardonnay experience with a twist.
[quote float=”right”]For years I wondered why the creator of the martini decided to ruin a perfectly good glass of gin by adding vermouth.[/quote]For a sure fire selection, look to cool-climate winemaking countries in Europe for a winter white. Gruner Veltliner from Austria is just now catching on in the United States, and the sommelier will give you a knowing nod if you ask him/her to recommend one. A good Gruner has a discernible texture, with tamped down fruit replaced by beautiful minerality. The best range from $30 to $50 a bottle, but Muller-Grossmann runs with the big dogs for only $23.
For years I wondered why the creator of the martini decided to ruin a perfectly good glass of gin by adding vermouth. It wasn’t until I tried the original European version did I realize how a hint of vermouth made the martini the world’s most famous mixed beverage. If you’re bar hopping in Spain, it won’t take you long to notice that just about every establishment has its own version of vermouth on tap, serving it straight up or on ice.
A good vermouth should be on everyone’s bucket list. Spain and Italy make it by infusing wine with fresh herbs and bitter orange peel. Spain’s Perucchi red vermouth is the secret ingredient in Manhattans at many of North Carolina’s best restaurants. And it’s good enough to enjoy on its own. Build a roaring fire, and then bask in the warmth while sipping on a glass of Perucchi red along with a hunk of Manchego cheese. You should find Perucchi red and white vermouth at your local wine shop for about $19.
So, fear not winter’s cold. Bold food with well paired wine will get you through the long winter nights. I hope these wines add to your indoor adventure while you hunker down and wait for spring.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.