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Dreaming of White This Winter

When the autumn foliage begins to turn red, so too should the wine in your glass – at least according to conventional wisdom. But just as the crisp, quaffable whites and rosés that we knock back all summer become monotonous by September, an unvarying regiment of big, brawny reds eventually proves just as tiresome. So why deprive ourselves of any potential pairing possibility, especially when so much winter fare – whether root vegetables, creamy soups and sauces, or roast pork and fowl – lends itself to the nuance and transparency of whites?

Fortunately, there’s no reason why the arrival of long-sleeve weather should force us to give white wines short shrift. When the mercury drops, I seek out the kind of whites that exhibit many of the opposite qualities that make brisk, refreshing Muscadets and Albariños my preferred form of oenological air-conditioning during summer. I’m talking about the unique category of white wines that warm us by the fire, rather than to cool us by the pool.

Generally, they will be a bit weightier in the mouth, and perhaps a touch higher in alcohol, imparting a full-bodied roundness that coats the tongue rather than puckers your lips. Still, for all their textural decadence, they should never lack the freshness or vibrant acidity required to wash down the hearty, rib-sticking comfort food that our bodies crave during the chilliest months of the year.

“What grows together goes together”

It always makes sense to look toward cold-climate regions where rich winter foods are traditionally paired with white wine. Nowhere does this apply more than in Alsace, a French region whose famously German-influenced cuisine isn’t celebrated for its lightness. This is the land of foie gras, choucroute garnie (basically, a heap of pork-laden sauerkraut), and the creamy, bacon-filled Flammeküche (or tarte flambé). It’s no accident that Alsace produces some of the world’s deepest and powerfully fragrant whites, which hold their own against the region’s thick, caloric fare.

Alsatian Gewürztraminer

I have a soft spot for the dense, wildly aromatic, spicy Gewürztraminer, the top examples of which taste more like some kind of exotic tropical nectar than wine: imagine a flamboyant mouthful of rose petals, cardamom, and pure lychee syrup, perfectly matched with herbed pork, Indian curries, or any pungent cheese.

German Riesling of the Rheingau

Although Alsace’s most eminent grape variety is Riesling, the grape itself is actually indigenous to Germany, where it assumes a completely different profile – truly a wine for all seasons. German Riesling typically exhibits bit more residual sugar than its Alsatian cousin, with lower alcohol and a vibrant acidity that acts like a squeegee for the tongue, slicing through all types of fat and cream in winter dishes. The most crystalline and shimmering expressions hail from the vineyards of the Mosel Valley. But for a richer drinking experience, the examples produced a bit further south in the Rhinegau region tend to be a bit fleshier, boasting riper, more extroverted peach and apricot fruit. And these wines pair magnificently with all kinds of Asian delivery on frigid nights when nothing could possibly convince you to step outside.

Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley

Most of us associate the Loire Valley with the bright, flinty wines of Sancerre; sure, they’re crisp and delicious – some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world – but, like tennis shorts, they’re rarely appropriate past Labor Day. But on the deeper, more serious side of the region’s white wine production, are the lesser-known Chenin Blanc-based wines from Touraine and Anjou. These whites are in a league of their own: take, for example, the dry yet utterly unctuous wines of Savennières. Beautifully round in the mouth, but with an electric jolt of acidity, they leave me with the impression of honey being poured over a stone. And then there are the amazingly diverse wines from the village of Vouvray, which come in a dazzling multiplicity of styles, from the sparkling to the elegantly dry to the heartbreakingly sweet – a pairing for every course in your meal,appetizer through dessert.

Rhône Valley

Similarly, the Rhône Valley – a region best known for its brawny, full-throttle reds – can yield unmistakably rich and nutty whites based on the Marsanne and Roussane grapes. My favorites include the rare white Saint-Joseph and Hermitage blanc, whose floral yet unmistakably oily and resinous qualities make them ideal matches for roast chicken in herbs.

Those Odd “Orange” Wines

Northern Italy is also worth exploring. In addition to richer whites from Piedmont, such as the lush and fruity Arneis, I’m fascinated by the adventurous, genre-bending“orange” wines emerging from Friuli, where the grape skins are left intact during maceration in the manner of reds.  This creates a curious oxidative character, similar to dry sherry— it’s an acquired taste, for sure, but definitely worth the experience.

Serving Temperature: The “Goldilocks” Principle

Whatever you do, don’t drink any of these luscious wines too cold – it will mask the richness and mute all of those warm autumnal aromas and flavors. I suggest serving them at “cellar temperature,” around 55 degrees farenheit. A safe bet is simply to stash your bottles in the fridge twenty minutes before drinking, allowing them to reach that optimal “Goldilocks” threshold – not too hot nor too cold.

And When in Doubt …

Of course, if all else fails, just drink Champagne. And I don’t mean any sparkling wine, but bona fide, actual Champagne, which offers a weight and depth unrivaled by any other breed of bubbly. After all, there’s truly no better fireside sip.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, and you’ll find many more examples of why  it’s often the best idea to ignore conventional wisdom. Do you have a favorite winter white? Comment below!

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