I placed a long-distance call to Winnipeg sommelier Christopher Sprague on a teeth-chattering, minus-15 C day in southern Manitoba recently to see if he might have some suitably wintry wine suggestions. Specifically, I was curious about his take on white styles – the cold-weather road less travelled – rather than the usual warm-and-fuzzy red suspects, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz.
He picked up his cell. I sarcastically asked how the weather was treating him. "It's 26 degrees and not a cloud in the sky," he said. "Just perfect."
He was in Palm Springs, Calif. So much for my sarcasm, which hit me in the face like a snowball. Sprague was on vacation from his job as wine director for WOW! Hospitality, which operates several fine-dining restaurants in Winnipeg, including Carne, 529 Wellington, Peasant Cookery and Prairie's Edge. His fun time in the sun didn't stop him from indulging me with my anything-but-pinot-grigio question.
A lover of white wines, he rose to the challenge with instant praise for France's Rhône Valley. That's the home of such underappreciated, if increasingly trendy, white varieties as roussanne, marsanne and viognier, all known for rich texture and gently musky, floral overtones.
For me, the consummate wintry white may be viognier, an oily-textured variety most famous for the expensive Rhône wines of Condrieu but also grown with success around the world. Dry and luscious, it can be marvellous with Indian curries. Ditto for gingery-floral gewuerztraminer, an exuberantly fruity and aromatic low-acid variety that's also the ideal dry choice for cheeses and pâtés.
If your budget permits, Sprague has another suggestion. Consider big-shouldered, hard-to-find white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It's usually priced above $40 (sometimes well above) and can be made from a variety of lesser-known grapes, including grenache blanc, roussanne, grenache gris and bourboulenc. "That is my go-to in winter," Sprague said.
In Vancouver, where I caught up with Lesley Brown on a balmy 10 C day, a better-known grape leapt to mind. The president of the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers tends to think more about seafood than classic high-calorie comfort foods, such as stews and pot pies, in winter. (I suppose you can do that when you live in Vancouver.) As in raw oysters, which are supposed to taste better, and be safer, some say, during the "R" months of fall, winter and spring. "I love to drink Chablis and oysters," Brown said, referring to the northern Burgundy appellation synonymous with crisp, high-tension chardonnay. The same goes for fresh crab, she says, which can also work brilliantly with fuller-bodied chardonnay styles.
For those of us stuck in pot-pie mode, buttery-oaky chardonnays from such New World regions as California, Australia and Chile – although not my nirvana wines in summer – can be surprisingly satisfying. I think of them as the warm and furry white analogues to shiraz and hot-climate cabernet. They also pair splendidly with wintry soups based on squash or cream and can glorify an otherwise prosaic dinner of frozen mac and cheese (I know, I've been there).
Brown is also partial in winter to chenin blanc (responsible for Vouvray and also a signature varietal wine of South Africa) as well as Austrian gruener veltliner and Italian vermentino. They're three grapes deserving wider recognition, she says. And, I'd add, they're three more good reasons to shelve the pinot grigio until Palm Springs weather, or some semblance of it, returns.
Jean Claude Boisset Marsannay Blanc 2015, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $42.95
Generously oaked for a Burgundian chardonnay, with telltale caramel and vanilla spice up front. But there's a solidly ripe fruit foundation to support the lumber. Silky and polished, it glides along with grace. Available in Ontario.
La Guardiense Janare Sannio Fiano 2016, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
Southern Italy's compellingly subtle yet substantial fiano grape gets the respect it deserves from the premium line of a large co-operative winery in the hills above Naples. Janare means "witches" and nods at the folkloric reputation of the town of Benevento as a witches' gathering place. The wine itself casts a bit of a spell, with its silky mid-palate, rounded notes of apricot, pear and honey, vibrant acidity and hint of minerality. Great buy. Available in Ontario.
La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Mid-full and fleshy, with butterscotch and tropical fruit in the foreground and toasty oak and vanilla bringing up the rear, with fresh acidity for support. A well-proportioned Californian. Available in Ontario at the above price, $30.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $28.99 in Manitoba, $40.48 in New Brunswick, $39.69 in Prince Edward Island.
Louis Moreau Chablis 1er Cru Vaulignot 2015, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $38.95
Good weight for a Chablis, especially one registering a moderate 12.5-per-cent alcohol. And the pale colour deceives as well. It's got chewy density, soft acidity and a salty tingle, moving harmoniously to a long finish. Available in Ontario at the above price, $31.35 in Quebec.
Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2016, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Full, ripe and classically Californian, yet with fresh, modern-style acidity. Tropical fruit, toasty oak and a drop of vanilla in admirable balance. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $18.99 in Manitoba, $18.65 in Quebec, $21.29 in New Brunswick, $20.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Powers Viognier 2016, Washington
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Light in colour and on the lean side for the often high-alcohol viognier grape (this one's just 13 per cent), but it shows characteristic oiliness and classic characters of orange zest, blossom and spice. Solid viognier for the money. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Côtes de Roussillon Blanc 2015, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
An unoaked blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris and macabeu – like a mini Châteauneuf-du-Pape but from the southern Roussillon region. Medium-bodied, with a pleasantly sticky texture and flavours redolent of apple, pear and spice. Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $17.95 in Saskatchewan, $18.09 in Prince Edward Island.
Essay Chenin Blanc Viognier Roussanne 2017, South Africa
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Medium-bodied and musky, with ripe peach-apricot fruit set against delicately sour tang and a whisper of herbs. Good value. Available in Ontario.
Tussock Jumper Chenin Blanc 2017, South Africa
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
Dry yet plump in the middle (like the rhinoceros on the label), with a tight belt of acidity and notes of tropical fruit, Seville orange, flowers and lemongrass. A bargain. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $13.60 in Quebec.
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