An easy guide to Winter Warmers

By Fiona Sims

An easy guide to Winter Warmers

©Andrey Starostin, fotolia.com

Who doesn’t love a dish of warming stew washed down with a glass of red on a cold winter’s night? But which glass of red? A fruity Pinot? A savoury Gamay? Not so much.

Think robust reds. Winter reds are heavier, fattier and meatier. Grape varieties to look at include the likes of Syrah and Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Barolo, Malbec and Mourvèdre.

Think hotter climate wines, which includes most of the southern hemisphere, and wines around the Med - so southern France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, to South Africa, Chile, Argentina and Australia. But what to choose? The easiest place to start is with the dishes.

It’s winter, so we’re talking slow cooking. Some of the most appetizingly rich and complex flavours evolve during the slow cooking process. Cheaper cuts such as shin rule in this instance. They contain that all-important gelatin which adds to the richness and texture, which will affect your wine choice.

You should also consider your cooking liquid. If red wine is used, the wine to match should almost certainly be red. Cook your meat in cider or beer, both winter favourites, and you are better off with white wine for the latter, and a low tannin red for the former – the key here is to balance the weight of the food and the wine.

So the richer, more complex the flavours in the dish, the more substantial the wine should be, and yes, we’re talking mostly red wine here. The meatiest of beef stews and braised game dishes will cope with a tannic red well – such as Nebbiolo, and Rhône Syrah, Marcillac and Mourvèdre.

But if those dishes are laced with plenty of sweeteners such as carrot, onion and their ilk, then you need to pull back on the tannins somewhat - think softer, more fruit forward reds such as Aussie Shiraz and plummy Chilean Merlot.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. Take classic winter stew ossobuco - it’s veal, a so-called white meat, and part of the cooking liquid is white wine, so you should choose a full-bodied white to partner it, right? Not necessarily. A fresher, fruitier style of red often works better, such as Pinot Noir, Dolcetto or Barbera.

And what about grilled meat? Blasting the food with a high heat to sear the outside and leave the insides juicy just adds another layer of flavour to play with. Smoky, caramelised flavours handle fruit, oak, tannin and acidity well. Think Aussie Shiraz, South African Syrah and Pinotage, even some Syrah, plus Californian Zinfandel, and meaty Mourvèdre and its southern red grape variety mates from the Languedoc.

There are potential stumbling blocks with grilled food, of course. Smear on a barbecue-type sauce and that sweetness can throw a dish. You need more fruitiness in your wine in this instance – Chilean Merlot kind of fruit.

Marinades, too, can distort flavours – I’m not talking a couple of hours spent in a garlicky, herby olive oil marinade, but overnight marinating in the likes of soy, ginger and aromatic spices. The wine will need more spice to cope - such as southern Italian Primitivo, Argentinean Malbec, Californian Zinfandel, Spanish Tempranillo and Grenache.

Got a posh bottle of red you want to open? Then save it for the roast. This is the kindest thing you can do to it - the meat dressed with no more than a few herbs and slivers of garlic, the flavours concentrated to a manageable degree. It’s hard to beat a roasted rib of beef with that smart bottle of Bordeaux you’ve been saving.

It’s worth pointing out here that rare meat, especially beef, has a clever ability to make a tannic red taste less tannic – it’s a bloodiness thing. At the other end of the scale a simply roasted game bird, such as duck or grouse, will find the perfect partner in fine, elegant Pinot Noir and Syrah-based reds.

Vegetarians need to make a note here, too. Roasted root vegetables intensify in flavour the same way roasted meat does. It’s often sweeter, too, especially parsnip, onion, carrot and sweet potatoes – in which case a white wine is usually a better partner here. You want red? Then think ripe and soft, such as juicy Merlots, New World Pinots and sunny Sicilian varieties.