What Wines are Winter Wines? Wine Pairing in a Winter Wonderland

What wines do you think go best on a blustery day or night, rain and snow falling like crazy?

I feel like summer disappeared so quickly, I didn’t have time to pull out the jackets and sink into hibernation mode. One thing I do notice is that my palate changes through the seasons like clockwork. Cravings of tropical notes and citrus give way to dark fruits, smoke, and tobacco. Many people crave reds in cold weather. So what should you drink during the winter? There is no definitive answer to this, yet people would argue a big Cabernet Sauvignon or a bold Merlot would be ideal.

A better way to look at it is what are you going to eat on those cold days after driving home in the rain or skiing all day in blizzard conditions. When I think of winter, I immediately think of eating soups and stews. Of course, that would pair well with a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but there are many other different types of dishes that would go well with wines that you wouldn’t particularly enjoy in winter.

Saturday morning after a long rainy night in Lake Tahoe, I woke up to two inches of snow. Since the forecast called for three days of rain, I was ecstatic that it continued to snow all day with an accumulation of 7 inches. I decided to do something I never do, cook. I prepared some ground chicken enchiladas with sweet green Italian olives, green chilis, white onion, Tillamook cheddar and my favorite staple, Tapatío Sauce.

Homemade chicken enchiladas
Homemade  organic ground chicken enchiladas

The enchiladas were moderately spicy but complemented the snowy day. I had just been to Elyse Winery a few days earlier and decided I would go with the 2013 Elyse Zinfandel Morisoli Vineyard from Rutherford. I didn’t find it overly jammy and had a nice acidity to it, which is why I figured this pairing could work. There were subtle hints of spice and oak on the front palate complemented by a nice long finish. As I ate my spicy Mexican dish, my Zinfandel held up well, making this an excellent pairing as the dark fruit in the wine went nicely with the heat in my dish. The 2013 Elyse Zinfandel Morisoli, priced at $39, is an excellent wine and I highly recommend you check out their Yountville tasting room in Napa Valley (appt. only).

2013 Elyse Zinfandel Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford
2013 Elyse Zinfandel Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford

Because I am not a gourmet chef or even a decent cook, one of my favorite winter go-to meals is grilled cheese sandwiches accompanied by a lovely creamy tomato bisque. I usually do a nice sharp cheddar on thick sourdough bread (Truckee Sourdough Company if I am in Lake Tahoe and BreadSRSLY gluten free sourdough if I am in Napa Valley.) I like a little kick in my tomato bisque, so I incorporate a hefty dose of cayenne pepper.

Grilled Cheese 7 Tomato Bisque on a cold afternoon
Grilled Cheese 7 Tomato Bisque on a cold afternoon

Since the bisque has a sweet quality and the grilled cheese is relatively rich from the bread and butter, I had to think of what to pair with this, something that would be higher in acidity and not too bold, maybe with a low alcohol percentage. Enter in the 2010 Carlson Creek Sangiovese from of all places, Arizona.

Before moving to Napa Valley and Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, I resided in Arizona for 22 years. I watched as the Arizona wine scene blew up with wineries like Page Springs Cellars, Callaghan Vineyards, and Maynard Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars. Arizona has some interesting terroir which gives their wines a distinct flavor profile.

2012 Carlson Creek Sangiovese from Arizona
2012 Carlson Creek Sangiovese from Arizona

Carlson Creek is located in the Southern Arizona growing region of Wilcox. I had joined the wine club after visiting the tasting room in 2010. I was highly impressed with the quality of the wines that this family operation produced. Unfortunately, this was my last bottle of Carlson Creek in the cellar, so I gladly sacrificed it for the sake of this blog.

This 2010 Sangiovese was light with an alcohol percentage of 12.7%. It had a beautiful brick color that you would find in an older wine. It was delicate with hints of berry and spice and a nicely balanced acidity which worked well with the richness of the grilled cheese. It’s tartness brought out the sweetness of the tomatoes in the bisque while gently toning down the heat of the cayenne pepper. At a price point of $23, you cant go wrong with this wine, which you can purchase on the Carlson Creek website.

One of my favorite dishes in the winter is curry, anything curry. There is something about Indian food that warms up the insides. I made a chicken red curry, medium heat, with black rice. I added a little garlic and cayenne pepper as well. I love the texture of the black rice, and the curry was full of Indian spices, the aromas filling up the whole kitchen. The cooking part was a no-brainer, however, what to pair with it was a little more challenging.

Red Chicken Curry with Black Rice paired with two different wines
Red Chicken Curry with Black Rice paired with two different wines

I chose two wines, total opposites, a red and a white. First up a 2011 St. Francis Sonoma Valley Viognier Wild Oak Vineyard. Not being a huge fan of Viognier, I thought a little spicy food might give it that flavor I wanted. This Viognier was five years old, with that said, it had a sweeter quality than current vintages of Viognier. With some lychee, honey and a little brioche on the nose, this Viognier paired well with the curry. The sweetness stood up to the heat and it still kept it’s longer finish. On the food side of things, it did counteract some of the heat in the curry, so if you like your food a little milder, this is a great pairing at $24 a bottle.

2011 St. Francis Sonoma Valley Viognier Wild Oak Vineyard
2011 St. Francis Sonoma Valley Viognier Wild Oak Vineyard

Next up was my second pick, the 2014 Christopher Creek Russian River Pinot Noir, medium in color, this Pinot Noir had raspberry and blackberry on the nose with and dark fruit, high acid, and a little Brett (Brettanomyces) on the finish. It wasn’t an overly big Pinot but had a relatively high alcohol level at 14.6%. I thought it enhanced some of the underlying flavors of the dish. However, the dish did nothing for the wine and left me wanting that harmonious relationship between both. I could see this wine paired with my favorite ostrich burger or even a duck confit. This wine is also great on its own which I found out later when I drank half the bottle after I wrote this blog!

2014 Christopher Creek Russian River Pinot Noir
2014 Christopher Creek Russian River Pinot Noir

Christopher Creek is a small family owned winery just outside Healdsburg. They specialize in hand-crafted wines with production around 4,000 cases per year. The tasting room has a lovely warm, rustic feel and friendly staff.

It was interesting to try two wines on either side of the spectrum, with Viognier winning the Indian curry food and wine pairing. If you don’t have a Viognier similar to the characteristics of the St. Francis, try a Chenin Blanc or a dry Riesling or have fun playing with different wines, it will only help you get better at pairing wine and food.

It’s fun to learn that winter wines don’t have to be big and bold and although your palate may crave them, it’s fun to venture out and try non-traditional cold-weather wines with some great comfort food.

Enjoy… Wine Ho!

All opinions expressed are solely my own…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven says:

    Great photos and post! Another alternative pairing for the Curry is a Gewurztraminer from Phillips Hill Winery in Anderson Valley. Enjoy a tasting in their apple dryer barn just north of Philo. . . and sample Toby’s Pinot Noir and unoaked Chardonnay.

  2. The Wine Ho says:

    Yeah I didn’t think the Viognier would work but it did. There are so many wine options for curry. I need to get back up to Anderson Valley again soon.

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