Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Fare - Essential Drinking For the Winter Months

With Thanksgiving's impossible demands and hoopla behind us, we can now get down to the real business of winter drinking.  That's right.  Winter drinking.  If you live north of the US/Mexico border, you've already had a strong dose of old man sleet/shit/snow even though the solstice is still some days away.  The silver lining (no, not that sheet of ice covering your car) is that we are now, in earnest, firmly in the season of warming beverages.

Just as our ancestors' did in preparation for the bleak months ahead, our palates gravitate towards fattier, heartier, richer fare.  Those among us fortunate (and weak) enough will yield to this gravity and turn to life-affirming osso buco, soul-coating lamb stew, and hearty winter squash risotto with wild mushrooms.  Tell me that isn't reason enough to celebrate.

This change is just as wonderful as emerging through the vernal equinox into spring exuberance, though much in the reverse.  We find comfort in nesting, in decorating and preparing our homes for the holidays, and in the passive, if temporary, acceptance our culture has given us to start our drinking at lunch time.  Civilization is visited upon us, however briefly, in these days - at least until the New Year shines the bright light of promise, resolution, and sobriety.  So let us make the most of this time and be merry.

Glorious and neglected sparkling wines are ready to enjoy their limelight before Valentines Day kisses them good bye for another ten months.  Rich European wines can be trotted out of hiding now that Thanksgiving's patriotic obligations are behind us.  And, yes, Port, forgotten since you put the shovel away after last winter's final snowfall, is now not only permissible, but compulsory.

Before getting to specific recommendations in these categories, a word on cuisine:  As with many of the celebratory meals you'll cook and enjoy this season, the aforementioned dishes all share some fundamental characteristics which helpfully inform our wine selections.  Taking queue from our food, this is the time for a class of red wines to really shine, most of which are to be found in France and Italy.  What do these wines have that others do not?  Acidity.  Too often the elephant banished from the living room, acidity cuts through fat and weight like a laser beam.  Acidity creates a gap into which light can shine.  And it is what lends balance.  And who couldn't use a little balance at the holidays?

Now, down to the business of specifics.  Let's start with sparkles.  This lithe, uninhibited number is a shining example of just how good bubbles can be under $20.  Hailing from Italy, the NV Toffoli Conegliano Valdobbiano Presseco Superiore "Gold" ($16) is gold indeed.  It has ample fruit for a dry sparkling wine and all the bracing, cut-through-the-bullshit acids to make this an unrepentant pairing with Blue Point oysters.  Prosecco and oysters?  Yes.  For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, please.  

For reds, there is so much to choose from.  Tuscany, Piedmont, Languedoc, and the whole Rhone Valley top to bottom are all virtually risk-free in terms of accompanying your cold weather, stick-to-your-ribs food.  Two value-priced winners to cross the local radar here are the 2008 Camp Galhan VDP "Les Perassieres" ($15) and the 2009 Guiseppe Campagnolo Ripasso ($15).  Both offer the kind of personality you can really warm up to and spend real quality time with.  Balance, harmony, and enough (though subdued) acidity to make the most of your dinner, you can't go wrong with either of these, but don't let that stop you from exploring these winter-friendly regions.


Finally, we have port.  I am often asked "What's the best wine you've ever had?" This is an impossible question - unless fortified wines can be included in the answer.  In which case, the best wine I've ever had was the 1994 Niepoort Vintage Port, followed by the 1987 Kalyra Tawny Port Amador County, possibly followed by the 1992 Dow's Quinta Do Bomfim Vintage Port.  Seeing a trend here?

Port is a wonderful thing.  It has the capacity to capture one's heart and emotion like no other.  And while there is much pleasurable port to be had for under $20, this is one splurge you really ought to give yourself permission for.  Vastly undervalued here in the US, stupendously outstanding, world class port can be had for under $75/750mL - even under $50 if you know where and what to look for.  Sound like a lot?  You bet it is.  But a solid bottle of port will treat you to a few (or more) encounters so memorable, the infatuation will take you back to the heart-tugging angst of that first high school crush.  Amortized over a few evenings - no matter how conservative your math - that's an unbeatable ROI.

As an example of just how great a value you can find, right now on WineBid.com, you can bid (and probably win) a split of Vincent Arroyo's 1997 Petite Sirah Port for $15.  I've had this wine and it is a lovely, soft rendition of port from this legendary Petite Sirah maker in Calistoga.  Also on there is a 2003 Graham's Vintage Port for $20 - this is an extraordinary steal on a 10 year old real-deal vintage port that the Wine Advocate gave 96 points to.  I've had this, too (some years ago), and it is intense, racy, insanely captivating, and I would very much like to experience it again.  As soon as possible.  Best of all, port, unlike wine, is virtually indestructible, making purchases of older vintages less fraught with risk.

Now, get out there and equip yourself.  Winter has just begun, but with the right supplies, you'll be smiling from now until the tulips sprout.  In the meantime, stay warm, drink well, and be meery.  Cheers.

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