Come winter, when I’m bundled in sweaters and scarves, what lights me up on a cold night isn’t necessarily a jammy Shiraz or a bone-dry Italian red wine.
Often I’ll turn to a chilled glass of white wine. Only my choice is never what I drank on a hot steamy night last August. I eschew tropical-fruit notes and crisp acidity for a white wine full on body, viscosity, and with herbaceous notes.
“We need acidity and fruit to bring to life the heavy, earthy notes that are an inherent part of the cuisine we will be serving and eating in winter,” says Thomas
Houseman, winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “Try to avoid high-alcohol wines and wines with too much residual sugar. All these will make rich food seem that much richer.”
Recently I sipped a glass of Joseph Drouhin Chardonnay from France’s Burgundy region of Chablis, pairing it with a bowl of hearty pasta topped with a chunky tomato sauce. The pairing jelled for me.
Maggie Brill, a sommelier at Lucky, a French gastropub in Roanoke, Virginia, agrees that French whites pair nicely with hearty wintertime fare. “Many French Chardonnays, such as Pinot Gris, from the Alsace region, are good for winter because they are not barrel-aged like California wines and they create that great crisp contrast,” she says. “They stand up well to heavier meals while giving the palate a lingering memory of warmer days.”
Equally well, Brill likes Viogniers during the colder months for “their stone-fruit undertones of peaches and apricot, which really pairs well with sweeter meats like pork and lamb.” Another of her favorite pairings is Meursault with a cassoulet (or casserole). “It has a stony minerality that stands up to the beans and sausages in that dish,” says Brill.
Most diners will gravitate toward red wines after the first frost, choosing tradition over innovation. Wine professionals, if armed with solid recommendations, can help steer them back to whites—but with some edification.
Winter whites should be heavy on oak and in body, and the more complex the better, with those layers stacking up to rich flavors present in hearty foods. A full, round mouthfeel also intensifies rich sauces and seasonings in the food. Brill’s succinct advice is to choose “a light acidic white that will cut through a heavier meal and create a beautiful, but sharp, contrast to fall and winter meals.”
Not sure how much oak was used to age a particular white wine but you still want to avoid a heavily oaked wine? Look to the wine’s appearance once poured in the glass.
“A heavily oaked Chardonnay will show more gold, or even brown colors, while a light unoaked Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling will be clear, yellow, or maybe even green,” says Seattle sommelier Yashar Shayan, who recently launched an online shop called Impulse Wine. He also likes to drink Chenin Blanc from France’s Vouvray region, Furmint from Hungary’s Tokaji region, and Garganega from Italy’s Soave region.
Pointing to the fact that many of Europe’s best food and wine regions are landlocked—places like Rioja in Spain or Burgundy in France, even Tuscany in Italy—white wines are still a staple, right alongside menus of beef, lamb, and chicken, says Shayan. Assuming only coastal regions tout white wines is entirely inaccurate.
As with any wine rule, however, there are exceptions, he says. Some unoaked wines—particularly Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Garganega, Furmint, and Sémillon—show depth in color and can be considered good choices during winter.
Another tip from Shayan for writing a winter wine list that includes whites is to look for wines aged in neutral barrels (an oak barrel used several times). And, finally, he advises turning to wines aged on the lees. “Aging a wine on the lees gives it fuller body and richness while adding flavors of custard, brioche, nutmeg, and cheese,” says Shayan.
Given that winter foods are already so rich in flavor, a wine list heavy on white selections is a win-win. For instance, squash—one standby ingredient during cool weather—goes well with a variety of white wines, including Vouvray made using Chenin Blanc grapes. Both sec and demi-sec will work well. “With notes of lanolin, honey, and nuts, Chenin Blanc will complement squash perfectly,” says Shayan. “Vouvray’s amazing structure and acidity will help to bring the pairing together and give an overall drier perception on the finish.”
Another dish popular in winter, risotto—loved for its comfort-food qualities and a creamy, rich profile, along with mushrooms—is a solid match with Garganega. “It has a lovely nuttiness that will complement a nutty cheese like Parmigiano. Also, the minerality will help bring out the earthiness of the mushrooms,” says Shayan.
This is not to say that California white wines will not pair with winter foods. James Chiang, co-owner of Amuse Wine Bar in New York City, often recommends to customers that they order a Chardonnay from California alongside winter foods. “Pumpkin veloute (a spicy pumpkin soup) goes great with Chardonnay from Napa,” he says. Another of his favorite pairings is a spicy lamb stew featuring root vegetables with Alsace Riesling.
If eating game, such as roasted pigeon with tarragon, a Viognier from Rhone Valley is a solid recommendation from Chiang.
To entice red-wine drinkers to try a white wine, he’ll often promote the heartier winter foods first, focusing on rich flavors and steaming-hot attributes, as an entrée to this imbibing shift.
“Since white wine is not [readily] known to be a nice winter wine, I will be pushing warm and flavorful food items to attract customers and recommend white-wine pairing options. Additionally, I will discount some of my white-wine selection,” says Chiang.
Given the increasing popularity of Oregon white wines, it might not be that hard to convince customers to sip a Riesling, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Noir Blanc from the Pacific Northwest state.
“Not many people have had a really good Pinot Blanc,” says Houseman. “But several producers in Oregon are making a less-aged Pinot Blanc that gives the richness of being in the barrel, yet keeps the acidity and fruit from being aged in neutral barrels. If you think of the yeasty qualities you get from Champagne, then you could transfer this to a barrel-aged Pinot Blanc as it’s a perfect partner to winter dishes like creamy polenta, risotto, leek tarts, and potatoes.”
Even with all the options, if there are still holdouts in your customer base, try upping the temperature on white wines. When stored in a refrigerator, they’ll be between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “Turn up the temperature on your wine fridge if you can,” says Shayan. “I’m a fan of keeping the fridge closer to 45 degrees in the winter.”
Offering white wines by the glass—or suggesting a complimentary two-ounce pour of a white wine—might entice a detour from red wines, too.
“Most people don’t even think about deviating from the norm of a red wine with a heartier dish until they are faced with the opportunity to do so, often with a good suggestion from the wine staff or wine specialist,” says Brill.