It's nearly winter and time for palates to adjust from lighter dishes and wines to something more substantial. And while full-bodied reds and rich dessert wines are delicious year-round, they are even more enjoyable when there's a chill in the air.
One of the most versatile and food-friendly red grapes is Syrah. The earthy flavors of a bubbling pot of diced lamb, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomato, red wine, rosemary, and Yukon gold potatoes are a perfect match for a well-made Syrah. In the U.S., quite a few regions produce top-quality wines with this grape, which is native to the Rhône Valley of France. Washington State winemakers are creating wines reminiscent of those from the northern Rhône. Earthy flavors are prominent, along with hints of spice, smoke, and bacon. Many winemakers in the Central Coast area of California are also producing impressive Syrahs. In addition to aromas of dried meat, their wines are typically laden with blueberry, blackberry, and plum.
Malbec is another grape that matches wonderfully with winter dishes. Its traditional home is the Cahors region of southwest France. It's also used in Bordeaux but merely as a blending grape to add certain flavor, texture, and color dimensions to their wines. Likewise, in Northern California vintners harvest the Malbec grape for the purpose of blending into Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines. However, in Argentina this hearty berry is the star.
Nicolas Catena is a perfect example of the ingenuity and forward-thinking occurring in Argentina's wine world. He brought this humble grape to the world-renowned level that it enjoys today. The Malbec typically produces a full-bodied, bold, spicy wine with hints of mocha, black licorice, blackberry, and earth. What Catena does so well is offer different expressions of Malbec at different price points for different occasions. If it's a Tuesday-night red wine to sip on while reading a book, he has the Alamos brand. To pair with a rib-eye on a Friday night, choose the Catena Malbec. For a special occasion, the Catena Alta Malbec is the choice. The berries that go into this Alta Malbec are hand-selected from vineyards as high as 3,800 feet above sea level in the Andes. The stress of growing at such an altitude forces the grapes to work hard, thus producing concentrated berries with flavors and textures that are haunting.
Dessert wines can add another layer of warmth and comfort to a meal. However, many wine drinkers still don't experiment with them the way they do with reds and whites. These wines are written off by many as merely sweet. Much as the right red wine can combine with a piece of meat to create amazing flavors, a luscious dessert wine can pair beautifully with a gorgeous dessert or cheese.
One of the best pairings is Vin Santo, or "Ice Wine," and Cabrales (a blue-veined cheese from Spain, available locally at Mantia's). Vin Santo is a dessert wine produced in the Chianti region of Tuscany. The grapes are hung in drying rooms to concentrate into rich nectar, leaving very little juice behind to ferment into wine. The lively acidity prevents the wine from being too sweet.
There are other unbelievable dessert wines being produced around the world. But be forewarned: They can be expensive due to their labor-intensive production and limited amounts. That doesn't mean there aren't values available to begin a journey into dessert wines.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2003, Columbia Valley, Washington $15.99
Ventana Syrah 2003, Monterey County, California $21.99
Cusumano Syrah 2005, Sicily, Italy $16.99
Clos la Coutale 2005, Cahors, France $18.99
Alamos Malbec 2005, Mendoza, Argentina $11.99
Catena Malbec 2005, Mendoza, Argentina $24.99
Catena "Alta" Malbec 2003, Mendoza, Argentina $55.99
Jackson Triggs Ice Wine 2005, Ontario, Canada $20.99
Rudolf Muller, Eiswein, Germany $19.99
Alois Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese 2005, Austria $33.99
Felsina Vin Santo 1999 Chianti, Classico, Italy $35.99