Vino Veritas: Whether Relishing Winter or Dreaming of Summer, Wines to Suit the Mood

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We interrupt your six more weeks of winter to bring you three glorious days that remind you spring may be on the way, even though one was riddled with thunderstorms and the other unceremoniously brought to a close by more snow. I swear I forget every February that this is what winter means, that by the best part of winter, which is obviously Christmas, you’ve only barely crested the Solstice and the most brutal brunt of it is still to come. Here in Maryland that means, apparently, soggy cold days, foggy cold days, two feet of snow, sub-freezing temperatures, freak 50-degree days sprinkled in there, and the worst parking situation for anybody who lives in the city. My sister sent me a picture of herself on the beach in Miami where she goes to school with the caption, “Never too early for mimosas by the sea.” I almost wept.

So what are we to do when the winter drags on, threatening yet another month of puffy coats, sleet, and a disgruntled public? When the world turns to whiskey to quell its chilly insides, will we embrace the season or wishfully long for warmer times? To be honest, I like to go to Miami. So obviously, option B: long for warmer times.

But let’s face it: Miami isn’t always an option unless you’re my sisters. So how do you bring the tropics home when it’s 28 degrees and snowing again and you forgot to put the windshield wipers up on our car and your shoes aren’t waterproof? Two approaches: Love It or Leave It.

Love It

When it gets cold out, my initial reaction is to pull out every sweater I own and bake a lot of pumpkin things, and my wine preference quickly swings from white or light reds to rich, snuggly, stick-to-your ribs kind of wine. In dealing with winter dregs (that is, January, February, and March), if I had my druthers, I would drink Washington State Merlot constantly. The good ones are robust and pure, like a really good blackberry or blueberry preserve, with cool, sleek minerality that may remind you of a wet river stone. They’re a little more generous than their grandparents from the Right Bank of Bordeaux, to speak generally, which means a lot of the time you don’t need to be snacking in order to quell tannins or acid. They’ll both be there, for sure, but are often more willing to play second fiddle to the fruit. 

Another wine I love to snuggle with is Zinfandel. Don’t judge me. You don’t know Zinfandel like I do, the way it can have cushiony deep chewy fruit brought to life by dusty earth and spice. It’s like a recliner for your mouth. It reverberates with briery fruit and sometimes crazy tropical flavors like pineapple and coconut while reminding you that really, it is okay to have that burger and fries. Please, it says. Please have that burger so that I may join you.

The food I end up eating this time of year is so often basic, straight forward stuff like soup and braises (think chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, those kinds of things), hearty country dishes that originally were born of necessity, because folks were trying to make the cheap ingredients they had taste better. Cook them longer! Use wine! Often, the wines I’ll use both to cook and drink with those dishes are “country” wines, those from less prestigious areas and with maybe a little less polish than, say, an Oregon or Burgundian Pinot Noir. Wines from the deep south of France, from Provence or the Languedoc, offer familiar flavor profiles as those to their prestigious neighbors to the north, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but with little fuss or frills. More often than not, these aren’t wines to sit and contemplate. They’re deeply fruity and funky Grenache and Syrah-based blends with loads of dark, high acid Mourvedre acting as a firm backdrop. They’re hearty and earthy and are the perfect thing for a chilly evening and a bowl of lentil stew. Try it.

An aside, the “Love It” approach to winter also leads me from gin and tequila to bourbon and brandy.

Leave It

Another name for this way of dealing with the seasons is “denial.” I love the idea of throwing a Summer in February party where you crank the heat up for a night and wear summer outfits and drink seasonal cocktails, but these drafty old houses (and our energy bill) wouldn’t take kindly to the temperature hike so instead, think to yourself, “what would I be drinking if I were in Miami right now?” It may be iced tea. It may be a mimosa. It may be a weird Pinot Grigio from the northern part of Italy. It could be anything, but the important thing is it probably isn’t hot cocoa.

For a pseudo-summer in February evening or gathering, I’d first set the table with the most ridiculous tropical prints I could find and make a giant batch of Sangria. All the key ingredients are still around…citrus is big in the wintertime because it’s grown in warmer climates. Spanish wine is still available. So toss them all together and serve with an umbrella straw, because nothing warms up a nightmarishly cold day like an umbrella straw.

Why not open up something distinctly summery, like Sauvignon Blanc or Verdejo? Nothing better than a crisp, refreshing white wine to show that crisp, “refreshing” white mess outside who’s in charge. Actually, if I’m totally honest, summertime sipping often demands a cocktail, something I almost never crave in the winter. Throw a fajita fiesta and make margaritas! What about Cuban food (I love Cuban food)—rice, beans, pork, plantains—and mojitos? Or better yet, throw an indoor luau with slow roasted pork, different tropical salads, and mai tais or piña coladas?

I’m usually tired of winter by about January 23, so this February snow vomit has maxed out my patience. Unfortunately, the weather couldn’t care less about my opinion. So instead, I’m going to alternate embracing the cold with cozy red wine and tropical cocktails till it’s all over. Call me in May.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.

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