Winter is woven into the fabric of our beings as Seattleites. The ceaseless drizzle. The cloud layer a mere 14 feet off the ground. The onset of twilight in early afternoon. Some of us gripe about winter while nurturing a secret fondness. Some openly embrace it, while the rest move to some other, certainly sunnier, likely duller, clime.
This is the time of year when our eating turns from farm-stand produce to the pickled, the preserved and the protein-laden. Steaks and roasts, stews and root veggies, potatoes and cheeses: It’s the season of heavy foods, and likewise, heavy wines.
Let’s begin with a white. Chardonnay is something of a chameleon. In winter, we want to eschew the leaner, cool-climate, stainless steel versions in favor of a riper, oakier style. The best winter versions see stone fruit (peaches, nectarines) and tropical fruit (mango) swaddled in spicy, nutty oak. The texture should be rich and creamy. Chardonnays done in this style are lovely winter cocktail wines (ones that don’t necessarily need to be paired with food, but can be drunk before the meal, like a cocktail), and they also pair with all manner of bisques and chowders.
Moving onto red wines, a natural choice for wintertime is Cabernet Sauvignon, with its flavors of black currant and beetroot, fresh herb and earth. But a Cab’s suitability in wintertime goes beyond flavor. Cabernet grapes are known for their thick skins, and when they’re harvested and pressed, that leads to a high skin-to-juice ratio compared to just about every other grape. In finished Cabernet wines, that equates to tannins. Cabernet is a classic pairing with a fatty cut of steak (like a rib-eye), and that’s mostly due to its tannic structure. Those tannins are remarkably effective at pulling fats and lipids off your palate. Eat a bite of steak, have a sip of Cab, and your next bite of steak? It will taste, for lack of a better word, steakier.
Right now, the most expensive wine grapes in the state of Washington, ton for ton, are Grenache grapes. It’s a hot variety, gaining in popularity and momentum. Grenache thrives in eastern Washington’s desert, where it can soak up a full summer’s worth of sunshine. The best Northwest versions mirror the grape’s expression in its ancestral home of the southern Rhône Valley, offering the Grenache trinity: brambly raspberry fruit, fresh herbs and loads of stony minerality. These are rustic, charming wines that pair beautifully with braised dishes and long-simmering stews.
Finally, this is that rare time of year when you might convince enough of your houseguests to crack open a fortified wine after dinner. For many years, Washington vintners have crafted fortified, “port style” wines from grapes like Syrah and Cab that would doubtlessly lead many a Portuguese winemaker toward apoplexy. In recent years, however, Washington growers have begun planting the varieties traditionally used in port (such as Touriga Nacional, Souzão, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão), and the results have been astonishing: rich, sweet mouthfuls of kirsch and dark chocolate, beautifully balanced by bright acidity, just crying out for slow after-dinner sips amidst contemplation of the brighter seasons to come.
Paul’s Picks for Washington Winter Wines
2014 Ashan Cellars Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($25)
Chris Gorman launched his Woodinville-based, Chardonnay-only Ashan Cellars label with the 2012 vintage. He makes three single-vineyard Chards that retail for $45 each, and then this wine (a blend of multiple vineyards) for considerably less. The nose begins with layers of fruit—lemon curd, peach, plantain, mango, even plum—and then moves onto luscious barrel notes of smoke and toast and caramel. PAIRS WITH: A smoked salmon chowder, studded with alliums three ways: garlic, onions and leeks.
2012 Idilico Garnacha ($20)
Idilico is Woodinville-based Spaniard Javier Alfonso’s label, meant to highlight Spanish varietals grown in Washington. (Garnacha is the Spanish term for Grenache.) This Garnacha is a 50/50 split of two vineyards: Elerding in the Yakima Valley and Upland on Snipes Mountain. Aged entirely in neutral oak, this offers a lovely nose melding bright floral rose petal notes with brambly raspberry, black cherry and dusty wild herbs. PAIRS WITH: Cassoulet, only a much less time-and labor-intensive version of the classic French white-bean casserole. Roast whatever delicious sausages you have on hand, and add them to a pot of beans simmered with aromatic vegetables and herbs.
2012 Sparkman Cellars Holler Cabernet Sauvignon ($32)
A new Cabernet for Woodinville’s Sparkman Cellars, this is an outstanding late-release 2012 that way overdelivers for its price point. Chris Sparkman blends four outstanding vineyards (Dionysus, Klipsun, Obelisco and Olsen) into one beautiful pan-Washington Cabernet. There was clearly some classy new oak involved here, imparting cocoa and coffee bass notes to a core of cassis, kirsch and good, clean soil. The winery recently sold out of the 2012 vintage, but bottles are in circulation at retail outlets; 2013 is expected to taste similar. PAIRS WITH: Cabernet was made for steak, and the fat can either be intrinsic to the steak (think rib-eye) or extrinsic (think a lean New York strip with a brandy-peppercorn cream).
2012 Brian Carter Cellars Opulento ($20)
Opulento, from longtime Woodinville winemaker and master blender Brian Carter, is as close to a legitimate ruby port as you’re going to find in Washington. This blend of Portuguese indigenous varietals is aged for 18 months in French oak and fortified with 190-proof brandy, up to a finished alcohol level of 18 percent by volume. Inky dark, it stains the glass and offers a nose of deep cherry fruit, caramel, coffee and orange peel. PAIRS WITH: A roaring hearth, a blue-centric cheese course featuring Gorgonzola dolce, Stilton and Roquefort, followed by a small piece of the highest-quality dark chocolate.