Wine of the Week: Big red wines for winter

Like wool scarves and flannel sheets, big red wines provide warmth and contentment. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/DavidPrahl)

It’s cold outside.

Winter has most definitely arrived Washington… and not a moment too soon. I was starting to wonder if it would ever get cold enough. Not that I am a glutton for punishment, mind you, it’s just that I look forward to the cold weather each year so that I can break out the BIG red wines. I have even been known to talk my family into ski trips just so that I can get my big red wine fix.

Like wool scarves and flannel sheets, big red wines provide warmth and contentment. Pair them with comfort foods such as beef stew or flavorful chili and big red wines can be elevated into legendary partnership status akin to Crick and Watson, Han Solo and Chewbacca, or — dare I say — Ben and Jerry.

But some big red wines stand on their own merit, relying on a chewiness that shuns company and demands the spotlight all to itself. Either way, big red wine season is finally here and I, for one, am a happy camper.

What is it about cold nights and red wines? For me, it’s the opportunity to have a rich, flavorful wine that is more at home fireside than poolside. Cold nights inspire me to invite friends over for leisurely dinners featuring hearty fare, crusty bread and wonderful conversation fueled by big red wine’s encouragement.

The requisite characteristics that I look for in winter reds are simple but precise. They include; plenty of rich, jammy black fruits; tannic grip; and — to borrow a real estate axiom — structure, structure, structure. These are wines that generally will benefit from an hour or two in the decanter in order to soften the tannins just enough to play well with the acidity and the fruit.

Here are a few winter reds that are easy to cuddle up next to.

My recent trip to Australia has reminded me that the land Down Under can make some right-side-up big wines. The 2016 Kilikanoon Killermans Run Shiraz from Clare Valley, located in South Australia is a big, chewy shiraz (pronounced shee-rahz — also known as syrah in many parts of the world). It has a nose highlighting scents of ripe black plums, crème de cassis and dark chocolate. The powerful, full-throttled flavors of black cherries, jammy blackberries, mocha, licorice and chocolate combine to give your tongue sensory overload. The whisper of mint on the long, commanding finish almost demands a rack of lamb. $20

One of my favorite varieties for cold nights is Zinfandel, and the 2017 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, California is a truly reliable Zinfandel that always delivers when I am in the mood for a mouth-filling, jammy wine. Scents of red cherry, black plum and bramble fill the glass while flavors of black raspberry, red cherries and cola coat the tongue. It has a delightful mouthfeel, thanks to great acidity and fine-grained tannins, that keeps it all in balance. A perfect companion with ribs. $18

Portugal is often associated with the sweeter-style Port wines, however, there are many value-oriented big red table wines that are sure to please the palate and keep you warm on a cold night. The 2015 Herdade do Esporão Alentejo Reserva — a blend of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouschet — is a wonderful bargain from the Alentejo region. Each variety is hand-picked and vinified separately, fermented in open stainless steel tanks and then aged for 12 months in 70 percent American oak and 30 percent French oak barrels. Then the wine was aged for an additional 12 months following bottling. The dark purple wine has a beautiful bouquet of cassis, black plum and hints of espresso. In the mouth, it features flavors of ripe dark cherries and black plums with black pepper on the long, balanced finish. This is a big-but-balanced wine with firm tannins that can stand up to well-marbled steak. $20

Drinking like wines twice the price, the 2014 Worthy Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California, is my idea of a serious winter red wine. Local wine distributor-turned-winemaker, Gus Kalaris, makes this wine from a blend of all five Bordeaux varietals; cabernet sauvignon takes the lead followed by cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot, and malbec. Scents of smoked meats, spicy plums and vanilla tantalizes the nose but belies the truly powerful flavors of black raspberries, black cherries, plums and tobacco on the beautifully structured frame. Silky notes of chocolate and herbs filter in on the long finish. This wine would be right at home with a big bowl of chili. $30

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