A glass of red wine is as comforting on a cold day as a roaring fireplace. The warm scents and flavors that we've come to expect from hearty reds harmonize perfectly with the intense entrees and rich desserts of the season. Whether it's out of tradition or as a reaction to the white blanket of snow outside the window, we find ourselves drawn to wines that hint at purple pleasures: black cherry, plum, and black currant-like fruit. We also have a renewed appreciation at this time of year for earthier essences in our wines, such as dark chocolate, mushroom, spice, and even leather (those with light, fresh notes of grape and red raspberry are best in the summer). When you cook up a winter dish -- think of a magnificent beef ragu, a lamb stew, or a pot roast -- the real opportunities for cold-weather wine pairings emerge. Robust, meaty flavors demand wine that's equally expressive and deep. That depth (the layering of many distinct flavor impressions) and its close cousin, length (the afterglow of a particular sensation, or flavor), are what we prize for memorable meals.
Some white wines can be every bit as rich and cheeky as that big Shiraz, and should be a better match for the paler, vegetable-rich dishes among those we're cooking now. A choucroute garni with lots of potatoes and sauerkraut; a cheesy casserole or gratin; or a rustic winter salad seems to beg for a ripe white. In particular, these kind of dishes call for a wine with the golden richness and cinnamon spice of those made from the Roussanne and Marsanne grapes of France's Rhone Valley (more and more wineries in California's Central Coast are producing delicious blends of those grapes). The Mediterranean rim also offers many interesting regional whites with depth, too. Greece's Assyrtiko and Moschofilero grapes, Campania's Falanghina grape, and Sardinia's Vermentino are a few to look out for at your wine store.
Columbia Crest's 2002 Grand Estates Merlot ($11) from Washington and Craggy Range 2003 Merlot ($37) from New Zealand have chocolaty nuances that can pair nicely with, well, chocolate, and many other dishes in a casual meal.
We like Selection 2001, from Haras de Pirque in Chile's Maipo Valley ($13); it has an almost chewy texture that is very appealing, and it's full of big, black cherry-like fruit.
Try Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Shiraz 2003 ($16) for its classically Australian zip and spice.
On the lighter side of red, the Chinon by Sauvion ($12), a Cabernet Franc- based wine from the Loire Valley, is lively and brisk; Chateau St. Jean's 2003 Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($18) has cinnamon notes that work well with the season's dishes.
Bonny Doon's delicious Le Cigare Blanc 2003 (about $20) is a Roussanne based wine with a suggestion of orange peel. For a French-style Roussanne from Paso Robles, California, try Tablas Creek Roussanne 2003 ($27). If you don't mind hunting a little, seek out Thalassitis, from Gaia Estate 2004 ($20), made from the Assyrtiko grape. Its fruitiness is backed by a deep mineral quality that comes from growing grapes in the volcanic soil of Santorini.
The Sauternes by Chateau d'Arche 2001 (half bottle, $30) has the characteristic honey and blossom aromas of a good Sauternes and a texture that's soothing, just shy of syrupy.
Lustau's dry Amontillado Sherry labeled "Los Arcos" ($14) is crisp but warm, with lovely almond suggestions and a hint of caramel. It is also available in half bottles.