In Canada, the solstices and equinoxes often seem out of sync with our climatic realities. Winter tends to come sooner than Dec. 21, doesn't it? And spring always seems to arrive later than March. But there's an exception: fall. Sept. 21 is always just about right for the start of autumn. I could tell the season had changed this week because I suddenly got the urge to stop grazing on raw garden tomatoes and make stew. It was a pot of bovine glory, adapted from a recipe by Maryland chef Bryan Voltaggio of Volt restaurant in the Esquire cookbook, Eat Like a Man.
The dish and the book, from the popular men's magazine, seemed fitting. Football's on and hockey's revving up; it's time for hearty fare and throwing dietary caution to the wind by laying down an insulating layer of flab for the cold months ahead.
The recipe's full title is "beef stew with ale," but I modified it, substituting wine for beer in the braising liquid. The decision was prompted by the nagging presence of several half-finished bottles in my fridge and a desire to crack open a fresh wine with the stew. I hate to waste three-day-old bottles and love the way wine tenderizes bargain cuts of otherwise tough meat. Besides, there was no ale in the house. (Note to self: Buy more beer for football season.)
These wines below are hearty enough to harmonize with the season. All but the last two display the sort of weight and density that warms the insides while providing solid cover for hearty dishes, like a cornerback shadowing a wide receiver. But I wouldn't serve gutsy stew with the Meyney or the Ladera; they deserve a relatively neutral backdrop to frame their subtle complexity. Think steak or roast beef. Most importantly, under no circumstances should those be substituted for beer in braising liquid. That wouldn't be eating like a man; that would be eating like an idiot (and, no, the two are not always synonymous).
Château Meyney 2008 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $47.95
In Bordeaux, 2008 was not a very good year. Summer rains held back the ripening cycle, producing high-acid grapes, and inviting rot and mildew. But three years later, now that the wines have had a chance to mellow in barrel and bottle, the results are far better than first feared. Here's an impressive effort from the Saint-Estèphe district, concentrated and well-structured. The tannins are a tad aggressive and angular, yes, but this full-bodied red sings with fine minerality. Decant it if you can, or cellar it for five more years.
Ladera Lone Canyon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $64.95
The price is steep and so are the vineyards, high on a slope of pricey Napa Valley real estate known as Mount Veeder. But this underrated cult cab marries substantial weight with impressive elegance, doling out flavours of blackcurrant, espresso and herbs with dense but well-integrated tannins. It should age nicely for a decade. Rare beef or lamb would be perfect.
Château Fayan 2008 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Another modest success from the 2008 Bordeaux vintage, this blend of merlot and cabernet franc offers up rich dark-fruit flavour, smoked herbs and moderately supple tannins. It's ready for drinking now; I wouldn't cellar it for more than three years. It would make a fine partner for lamb shanks.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Wynns has been doing a splendid job with this cellar-worthy, yet relatively affordable, red for more than 50 years. The 2008 shows pure cassis and dark-chocolate flavours on a succulent, juicy frame with well-integrated tannins and a kick of spice.
Two Hands Yesterday's Hero Grenache 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $31.95
Full-bodied and subtly sweet, with a hint of rubber on the nose and candied-berry flavour, this is a big, friendly red that's both juicy and smooth. It would work especially well with gamier meats, such as lamb, duck or venison.
Thelema Mountain Red 2007 (South Africa)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $11.95
Here's a terrific buy from a respected Cape producer. A blend of shiraz and merlot, it's full-bodied, juicy and brimming with berries, coffee, smoke and light spice. It's a ringer for braised red meats such as beef stew.
Terra Noble Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Rich and juicy, Terra Noble's full-bodied red admirably toes the line between vaguely sweet dark fruit and lively, peppery spice.
STLTO Red 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $11.95
It's pronounced "stiletto" – if the bright-red, high-heeled shoe on the label weren't enough of a clue. Pitched at the fashion-forward crowd, it's more serious than the packaging might convey. A blend of malbec and merlot from Italy's central Abruzzo region, it's layered with flavours of plum, cherry, dark chocolate and coffee, with a tug of gently astringent tannins. It would even pair well with a manly beef stew.
Peller Estates Private Reserve Chardonnay 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
Aged for a year in oak barrels, this well-crafted, medium-bodied white wears its wood well, which is to say subtly, serving up crisp flavours of citrus and apple, with just a whisper of toasted nuts and vanilla. Roast chicken, grilled salmon or butternut-squash soup could play ball with this chardonnay.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2010 (New York)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $22.05
A quirky white from the cool-climate Finger Lakes region, with herbal-floral high notes, it won't appeal to the vast majority of tastes, I fear, but I like it. And while it's light and crisp, it gets my nod for autumnal sipping because of the apple-like flavour and hint of honey. Available only in Quebec.