When does autumn begin for you? When wool starts to feel better than cotton? When you notice that pumpkins have replaced tomatoes at farmers' markets? When you've got to wrestle for the remote to catch new episodes of Dancing with the Stars in a home full of Monday Night Football fans?
The cold reality tends to sink in for me in a culinary way. This year, my tender bones sensing a chill, I got the sudden urge to make porcini mushroom risotto. It's my go-to fall dish. When I crave it, I know autumn has officially arrived. Geese fly south, and I instinctively boil stock and reach for a wooden spoon.
You could enjoy the earthy, woodsy Italian comfort food in winter, of course, because dried porcini mushrooms are available year-round and so is truffle oil, the perfect aromatic topping when drizzled sparingly. I also like mine with a generous fistful of fresh-cut parsley, though. In fall, the herb is still going strong in my garden, so I like to capitalize on the bounty.
The dish and the brisk weather invariably induce a thirst for a hearty, autumnal red. At the top of my list is nebbiolo, the sturdy, tannic red grape responsible for Barolo and Barbaresco, the great wines of Piedmont in northwest Italy. Nebbiolo, deceptively light in colour and brimming with notes of dried cherries, tar and roses, often comes with a subtle note of mushroom or truffle, which echoes the heady risotto marvellously.
Other fitting options spring to mind, not just for mushroom-based dishes but for the homey season in general. Like rustic Brunello di Montalcino, savoury Côtes du Rhône and earthy pinot noir – even creamy chardonnay for sweetly mellow squash soup. It's a short list, of course. I'm sure you've got your own favourites. Let's grab a corkscrew. And the remote.
Pelissero Nubiola Barbaresco 2010, Italy
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $45.95
This family-run operation produced its first wines in 1960 from a cellar on the ground floor of the Pelissero home. A new facility now turns out 20,000 cases of various bottlings. The Nubiola 2010, fermented in stainless steel and matured in a combination of small oak barrels and much larger wooden casks, displays a wonderfully earthy, mature quality, with notes of tobacco, underbrush and mushroom complementing a penetrating core of plum, cherry and chocolate. It's like a walk in the woods. Available in Ontario.
Fattoria Carpineta Fontalpino Do Ut Des 2012, Italy
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $38.95
Smooth yet dry, with pleasantly chalky, fine-grained tannins, this is a red Tuscan blend of merlot, sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. Imagine dried cherries on a bed of fallen leaves along with minty tang and fresh autumn breeze. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
La Ferme du Mont Côtes du Rhône-Villages Le Ponnant 2014, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
Succulent, tangy, perfectly ripe and wonderfully savoury. An unfiltered blend of mostly grenache with syrah and mourvèdre in supporting roles, this attractively priced, complex and full-bodied red combines flavours of cherry jam, licorice and lavender. A standout Côtes du Rhône from the cool 2014 vintage. Available in Ontario at the above price, $20.99 in Manitoba.
Rocche dei Manzoni Langhe Bricco Manzoni 2010, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $38.95
Mostly nebbiolo with a splash of crisp barbera (another signature red grape of Piedmont), it conveys sweet, chewy cherry set against dry, chalky tannins, with overtones of purse leather and spice. Exhibiting lovely, evolved notes of fall foliage, too. Available in Ontario.
Gianni Gagliardo Barolo 2011, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.95
Relatively soft in the middle for a nebbiolo yet pulled in tight around the edges with astringent tannins, this offers up suggestions of cherry syrup, licorice and a hint of shoe polish. Available in Ontario at the above price, $77.99 in British Columbia, $50.29 at The Port in Halifax.
J.L. Chave Sélection Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur 2014, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
Chave is a hallowed name in the Rhône Valley, specifically in the north, where the family estate turns out mighty $250-to-$300 syrah wines from vineyards on famed Hermitage hill. This humbler red is the product of a newer négociant business set up by Jean-Louis Chave using purchased grapes in the southern Côtes du Rhône appellation. I wish most "humble" $22 wines could be this good. A blend of syrah and grenache, it comes across like plums, black pepper and licorice on a buffed texture, with a tangy, spicy spine and invigorating whiff of funky barnyard air. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $24.35 in Quebec.
Flat Rock Gravity Pinot Noir 2013, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $30.25
On the lighter side of medium-bodied, this is impressively crafted, very dry Niagara pinot with an aromatic quality that salutes Burgundy more than the New World. A berry-like essence mingles with nuances of baking spices, damp earth and mulched leaves. Imagine a raspberry bush growing in an old-growth forest. Crisp, complex and elegant. Available in Ontario.
Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2013, Ontario
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
Unmistakably franc, this full-bodied, organic Niagara red nods respectfully in the direction of the Loire Valley with a subtle bell-pepper essence that typifies many Chinons and Bourgueils. Yet there's plenty of ripe, sweet berry fruit up front along with whispers of cedar and spicy black pepper. Available in Ontario Vintages stores and direct from www.southbrook.com.
Lapostolle Gran Seleccion Chardonnay 2015, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Medium-full-bodied and creamy, with a sweet core of tropical fruit, peach nectar and vanilla, lifted by tangy acidity. The oak is well integrated. It's a well-priced Chilean white (not that bargains from Chile are scarce). Available in Ontario.
3C Premium Selection Cariñena 2013, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Made from the red carignan grape in Aragon, south of the Pyrenees and well west of Barcelona. It's juicy, with plum and jammy berries joined by an aromatic, savoury quality led by black pepper. Good value. Available in Ontario.