I hate to break it to you, but it’s that time of year again. The warm summer days are transitioning into brisk autumn nights. On the plus side, comfort food is back in style now that bikini season is over. And you know what that means: It’s time to switch up the wine list to reflect the season.
“As the chill of autumn sets in, my clientele tends to favor wines showing slight savory elements as well as texture,” says Sydney Paris, a San Francisco-based beverage consultant and master of wine and master sommelier candidate. “The well-chilled Albariño and Grüner Veltliner that went so perfectly with summer cuisine give way to wines with a few more elements.I find that autumn brings out more savory flavors, and the body begins to clamor for more savory and more fat.”
From beef roasts and duck to butternut squash purées and parsnips, the flavors of fall have one thing in common: fat. It dates back to when our ancestors had to start building up their natural “winter coat” before the snow fell. The root vegetables of autumn are high in complex carbohydrates, which break down into sugar. And we’ve all heard that beef is high in saturated fat, although almost half of the fat in beef is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid (the same heart-healthy fat that's found in olive oil).
To balance higher fat content in the cuisine, switch to wines higher in tannins and acidity. The tannins break down the protein while the acid cuts through the fat. Wines with higher acidity tend to be found in Old World, or cool climate, wine regions. Tannins come from the grape skins, pits and stems and are natural preservatives. Walnuts and tea have tannins as well (which explains why you can still be thirsty after a cup of tea). Grapes with thicker skin therefore tend to have higher tannins.
“Not everybody can afford aged white Burgundy and Barolo," Paris says. "So while I make sure I am well-stocked in these areas, I have been ferreting out wines from Umbria, Le Marche, and Abruzzo.The irony is that most guests prefer Sangiovese-dominated ‘Super Umbrians’ over a Brunello.”
Brunello is one of the most prestigious wines of Italy and typically sells for at least $100 on a restaurant wine list. You have most likely heard of Super Tuscans, wines made from producers in Tuscany that felt the blending restrictions were too rigid. So they started blending in nontraditional grapes (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah) and the rest is history. Super Umbrians are the next Super Tuscan! Umbria is right next to Tuscany and makes a myriad of splendid wines.
“For me, central Italy is a go-to region for the fall,” Paris says.“The region offers wines that tend to be undervalued but still offer texture, fruit, and acidity. Wines like Sagrantino, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano pair naturally with the roasted and savory flavors of fall. Throw in the natural palate of recharging acidity, and they become no-brainers.”
John Vuong, wine director for Ame at the St. Regis in San Francisco, prefers another Italian underdog region: Cisterna d'Asti. Based in Piedmont in the province of Asti, Cisterna d'Asti is made from a minimum of 80 percent Croatina, a native Italian grape variety. It tastes like a Pinot Noir with tannins – perfect for the flavors of fall. And, as Vuong points out, because Italy has so many obscure grape varietals, it makes a good value by-the-glass selection.
Another one of Vuong’s favorite wines for the season is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a Grenache-based wine from France that permits up to 13 grape varieties in the blend. By law, it has the highest minimum alcohol percentage in France at 12.5 and a good number of the wines come in higher than that. “I like it because of its weight, it’s not too expensive, and it’s really bright,” Vuong says. “Plus, not enough people drink it.”
And it's not just the flavor that motivates this sommelier's selections. Vuong likes to cut costs in fall by taking advantage of pre-arrival offerings. Portfolios like importer Terry Theise's offer discounts up to 10 percent. “It helps me plan so I have a good idea of what’s coming in the fall,” he says. “By ordering wines locally and committing to five case drops, it’s security for the winery knowing that you are going to pour their wines by the glass. Some wineries are even willing to drop the price a little for the marketing.”
From obscure Italian regions to the fame and glory of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, wines with high acidity and tannins are the trend this fall. It makes all the sense in the world to take advantage of these many offerings to give your customers an autumn to remember.