Groundhog Day dawned, flat and featureless. Soon the sky became animated with snow crystals’ feathery sixfold symmetries. There was no sun, no possibility of shadow, not even the shadow of a possibility of a shadow. Here in New Hampshire the groundhogs are still napping anyway, their hearts in suspended animation, waiting. There was nothing to see, and nobody to see it.
The Gaels called it Imbolc, Lá Fhéile Bríde, Laa’l Breeshey. The Christians called it Saint Brigid’s Day, co-opting the narrative. It heralds the beginning of spring, and it makes its entrance at sunrise, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In New England you’re reminded that if you don’t have “half your wood / and half your hay / by Saint Brigid’s Day” you may not survive winter’s ravages. My household doesn’t bring in hay, having no livestock to husband, but we can boast of a still-handsome stash of alliums in the cellar. And while our woodpile continues to contract, I do think we’ll make it.
Mid-week, winter blew back in with a vengeance, with temperatures dipping to eighteen below zero and another heavy drift of snow. The weather keeps snapping at our ears and fingertips, coiling our breath into steamy wraiths as we trudge out for the mail or more sticks from that dwindling pile.
Meanwhile, in my kitchen, I try to warm that deep wintry zone with comfort food: stews and braises, roasts and meat pies, tomato sauces and sausage and soup. They’re all savory and rich, spreading delight from the inside out. They clamor for spirited wines with heft and deliciousness.
Below are ten great bottles from recent tastings—which is to say dinners, because once the formal evaluations are dispatched, I pour the best with the day’s big meal. One night we might taste Spain, the next night it’s Italy or California, the Languedoc. Mixing it up chases away the blahs. Geographic differences notwithstanding, these winter favorites do strike me as sharing a sensibility, wrapping their fruit around an earthy core that binds them to the seasonings and simmered savoriness in the foods.
It must be something in the air.
2010 Pertinace Barbaresco Marcarini DOCG
14% abv | $45 (sample)
Tea-red color, very limpid, with a flame orange rim. Beautifully perfumed with anise seed and crushed lavender, raisin and cedar. Evocative and beautiful, the palate’s sweet tobacco and drying tea-tannins conjure a paneled room with leather chairs, but its rosy serenity suggests the room leads out to the garden.
2008 Ferenc Máté Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
15% abv | About $60
A glorious woodland fragrance of sweet tobacco and cedar precede an earthen body with lean cherry fruit and an iron-mineral core. At the finish there is deep savoriness. The Máté estate has been in vine for over 2,000 years, and its Sangiovese sits in fossil-rich, calcareous tufo soils. Harvest is manual, yields are low, and the wine ages in a mix of barriques and tonneaux. It’s wonderful, and could tolerate further bottle age.
2011 Vietti Nebbiolo “Perbacco” Langhe DOC
14.5% | $23
This Nebbiolo’s clear garnet body offers subtle, almost elusive aromas of herbs and spices and berries. It’s lean and tannic and only a tiny bit fruity. This might sound like a bad thing, but in my book it’s a very good thing, because that lets it shine with food—cheese in particular. It was seriously incredible with Comté and Manchego; I’d love to try it with Robiola from Langhe.
2012 Bodegas Bilbaínas Viña Zaco Rioja DOC
14% abv | $15 (sample)
This wine is 100 percent Tempranillo, mostly from Rioja Alta’s Haro region, and spent nine months in barrel. It’s nicely balanced, with good grip and acidity and bright cherry fruit. The kiss of wood is welcome. A great weeknight wine.
2010 Bodegas Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Rioja Reserva DOC
14% abv | $21 (sample)
Velvety cedar and sweet ruby-cherry fruits greet the nose. The wine’s body balances delicacy from the acidity and deep gravitas from the drying tannins, the whole stitched together by woodsy forest fruits and a streak of graphite. An excellent food wine.
2012 Parducci Wine Cellars Petite Sirah “True Grit” Reserve Mendocino
14% abv | $29 (sample)
Petite Sirah can be ponderous, but this wine manages levity. I tasted the 2009 vintage a year ago and found it smooth and balanced, with notes of dark cherry, fresh coffee, and resinous herbs. The 2012 is still comparatively young, and features peppery cherries, black plums, and chocolate. Zingy acidity enlivens its velvety texture. Good now; lay some down for two or three years, too.
2012 Don Sebastiani and Sons Pinot Noir “Aquinas” Napa Valley
13.5% abv | $22 (sample)
Sweet Christmas spice and ruby fruits top-note the wine’s aromatics, but it’s more savory than the fragrance suggests, with a bitter black fruit undercurrent and glittery acidity. The finish is all nutmeg and cherries, currant and cranberry spice. Pair it with roasted pork or poultry and savory fruit compote.
2008 Bonny Doon Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley
13.9% abv | $36 (sample)
This wine is about darkness and savoriness: soy sauce, cured meat, coffee, black currant, black plum skin, anise seed. It was boistrous when young (I worked for the winery during its release), but it’s starting to settle into itself. Right now it needs meat—braised beef, osso buco, roasted lamb; a few more years of bottle age will let it open further.
2009 Terre Rouge Syrah “Les Côtes de l’Ouest” California
14.5% abv | About $20
An amiable California Syrah plush with sweet summer blackberries, zesty red raspberries, and a finish like sweet tea. It’s not northern Rhône-like—not as savory, no green olive, no smoke or violets—but its ample structure and slight black-anise bass note complement these fruity pleasantries and render it more serious than suggested by the sunny “Coast of the West” burlesque.
2013 Easton Zinfandel Amador County
14.5% abv | $18 (sample)
Terre Rouge’s second label, Easton, is reserved for non-Rhône grape varieties. This Zin is ripe with red cherry and bright bramble fruits, anchored by leather and tea. Zesty and grippy, it has ample finishing tannins that balance the fruit, making it both pleasurable by the glass and incredibly food-friendly. An exemplary Zin, and a screaming deal.