When the weather is cold, I often just want to reach for a red. It’s got higher alcohol, is served at a warmer temperature, and it’s great with hearty food.
But I’m here to tell you that there’s this underbelly of whites that few know about that you need to get on right away. They are usually a great price, often as satisfying as a red, and can pair perfectly with rich food (especially spicy food). The common theme is that they feel fuller and softer in your mouth and have good flavor. If you put them in a black glass and you’d swear they were red wines!
In the summer and with summer foods, we all want sippers that are refreshing and bright: Wines that are best colder and have high acidity are best (Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay/Chablis, Albariño or Verdejo from Spain). But as the temps go down, you need a bone-warming white. The three keys to finding one:
Lower acidity and softer, rounder textures, which mean these wines are from warmer, sunnier climates where the grapes get fully ripe and aren't as tart. 13.5% alcohol is probably the minimum you’d want for the right body.
Wines that are better served at 50˚F+ -- not ice cold. You'll need to leave these out of the fridge to warm up.
Fuller flavored wines that have enough umph to stand up to richer foods -- soups and stews, poultry with herbs, pastas with richer sauces.
For me, the genre of grapes and blends that fit the bill are those from Alsace, , the Rhône Valley, and Southern Italy, and places that have similar climates to those areas.
Alsace Whites: Take your pick! Any of the great grapes of Alsace are full, soft, rich, and great for warmer weather.
The Riesling is opulent and almost oily in texture but still dry with peach, apple, pear, and mineral (think of being near a waterfall) notes. The wine has acidity but it's fuller in body than many dry German versions. The Pinot Gris is not so aromatic, but it's spicy -- like coriander or mild ginger -- with smoke, orange, apricot, pear notes and a rich texture. Good stuff and affordable. I’ve actually had some awesome Pinot Blanc of late. Although it can be insipid and thin, the right producer in the right year makes it fat, round, and pear-like in flavor. Great versions can be had from $18 on up to hundreds of dollars.
For Southern Rhône, Costieres di Nîmes Blanc, Côtes de Rhône Blanc, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc are my favorites. The main grapes for these wines vary -- some are Grenache Blanc, some Marsanne, some Viognier, some Roussanne or Picpoul, but good versions share the same character: soft, luxurious textures that roll around in your mouth with enough acidity to keep them from feeling heavy or imbalanced. The flavors will range from peachy to honeyed to herbal, but the textures are consistent so they fit the criteria above. Outstanding versions of Costieres de Nîmes and Côtes de Rhône Blanc can be had for US$15 to $20. I’ve even had some great Picpoul for around $15 that has this same quality.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape will set you back at least $US40, but it’s well worth it, especially with halibut in butter herb sauce (the best pairing I’ve probably ever had!). You'll find similar wines from great producers in Priorat just south of Barcelona, Spain. These wines are often a better value than CdP and have a Grenache Blanc lead (and they are awesome with Spanish tapas!). You can get a great one for around $US25.
Northern Rhône wines are similar but they are more refined and much more expensive! Viognier from Condrieu is soft, and like a bouquet of flowers or bowl of peaches or apricots, and dry but decadent in texture. The white versions of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph are made with Marsanne and Roussanne grapes and may be the fullest whites you'll find -- like eating a honey comb, but not sweet, with lots of earthy, waterfall/stream smells and flavors.
Before I go move from the Rhône to Southern Italy, I should point out that California does some great whites with Rhône grapes too. I’ve had some Viognier from Santa Barbara that’s full of fruit flavor but with a touch of acid -- great with food and delicious on its own. Our friends at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles make a few outstanding white Rhône blends in the Rhône style. And one of the tastiest Rhône wines I've had out of Lodi was a Picpoul by Acquiesce Winery -- full, rich, soft, but with enough acidity to keep it from sitting heavy in your mouth. All of these will run you more than $20, not a great value but tasty nonetheless!
And to complete our tour of cold weather whites, on to Southern Italy...
The two amazing grapes of Southern Italy -- Fiano and Greco -- make rich, full, soft whites. Another warm, Mediterranean climate, these wines share a lot in common from a texture standpoint with the wines of the southern Rhône, especial