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On My Seasonal "Defective" Disorder
These so-called "winter" wines are the antidote to my nagging springtime regrets.
Today’s newsletter is by our regular contributor Alexandra McInnis, who is co-creator of the Alpine Wine Society newsletter. Alexandra works at Crush Wine & Spirits in New York, and began her wine journey after a career in the film industry.
With the changing of the seasons, I’m obliged to reflect on my many Missed Connections—not romantic ones, but of the culinary variety. Like many people who care about food, I try to buy ingredients that are at their best at a given time of year, and then put them to use in as many creative recipes as possible. Only, due to constraints of time, money, and headspace, a lot of my best intentions never pan out. When I take stock of my use of winter produce this year, I'm not sure I’d give myself a passing grade.
I haven’t made, for instance, a tarte aux oranges, or a Winter Salmon Salad with Radicchio and Burrata. I haven’t made a salade Lyonnaise either, mostly because I saw the price of frisée at Citarella and immediately put it back on the shelf. It’s mid-March, and I haven’t bought a single yuzu, or kiwi, or rutabaga.
I could cram, full on exam-style, and try to snatch up these ingredients now, but there’s something about the bags of graying mandarins at Whole Foods that tells me I would be wasting my time. I’m also reminded of the person who sniffed at me in January that radicchio was “done” by November (when it comes to food, there’s always someone who’s doing it better than you). So, the phrase “next year” becomes the redemptive path to this year’s seasonal produce guilt.
Anyway, in a few weeks I’ll have my chance to buy my way back into gastronomic heaven. It’ll be that time again when “blowing your money in the market” could equally be due to tech stocks or $8 bunches of asparagus. Naturally I’m referring to farmer’s market season, when I’ll join the Vitamin D-deprived masses in squinting at stalls overflowing with radishes and watercress. Amateur hour, according to the faithful, like my sister, who proudly brandishes her Union Square Greenmarket Winter Warriors card like it’s a Purple Heart. But I’ll be grateful for the chance to indulge some other annual preoccupations – like rhubarb, and my pathological desire to turn a giant sour weed stick into something tasty (call it blind faith, or a weakness for a good shade of pink).
The quasi-religious, “eat local,” “farm-to-table,” “seasonal produce” discourse is certainly a prime target for mockery, an easy jab at the petty fixations of the urban elite. But if I ever wander too far down that line of thinking, even in a self-effacing way, I’m reminded of my late great-aunt, who fastidiously tended to her vegetable garden on a sloped plot behind her modest house. Eating seasonally was important to her, too. So if I need to go easy on myself for not roasting enough carrots this winter, I also won’t reproach myself for caring, because I can remember the quality of her carrots and the work that she put into them, and that’s part of what makes these things worth caring about.
I could equally regret not taking the time to open enough winter wines this year, either to pair with my winter recipes, or simply to enjoy on their own during the calm of the cold season.
“Winter wines” can mean different things to different people, but a common definition would be wines with more body, which can be due to higher alcohol content, or winemaking techniques such as oak aging. Essentially, wines that you wouldn’t want to drink under the sun on a summer afternoon.
For me, however, the seasonal characteristics can also come from the specific aromas and flavors. A pinot noir with “earthy” flavors like mushroom, for example, seems more at home on a dark, chilly night, versus a more vibrant, warmer-climate expression of the same grape (and the latter would likely have a higher alcohol content). A Vin Jaune from France’s Jura region, with oxidative notes of nuts and bruised apples, is perhaps the ultimate winter white, as it cries out for rich, creamy dishes as a pairing. Yet I also love to drink the “lighter” Alpine white wines in cooler temperatures specifically for their energy and purity, the perfect embodiment of the season. A citrus and mineral Chasselas calls to mind the contrasts of a clear winter day, with the intermingling of the cold air and direct sunlight, perhaps best enjoyed on a chalet terrasse overlooking Mont Blanc (somewhere I certainly did not get to visit this winter).
But here’s the thing—with seasonal wines, unlike seasonal ingredients, I fortunately don’t have to settle for the canned, the dried, or the frozen once the ideal moment has passed; they simply live in the bottle until poured in the glass. So I may not be reclining in front of a fireplace with my glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the near future, but perhaps I’ll be seated around a firepit on a cooler summer night. I may not be wearing a fur hat à la Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago when I sip my rich, Jura white, but I may be pulling a cardigan tighter around my arms at a bar counter, cursing the sub-zero AC. I look forward to all of these possibilities. That’s one of the great things about a bottle of wine: it’s choose your own adventure.
Winter Wines I’ll Be Reaching For Year-Round
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is known as one of the biggest and boldest wines around, although this particular iteration shows notes of mushroom and black pepper in addition to the red fruits that traditionally characterize the blend. Les Petits Galets, meaning “the little stones,” is made to emphasize the terroir of its particular corner of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape; it’s unoaked, with unusual freshness and acidity. Equally great with winter braises or charred barbeque meats and burgers.
Jura does savagnin two ways: either “sous voile,” left to ferment under a layer of yeast, or “ouillé,” topped off like a typical wine from most regions. This savagnin is made in the latter style, but it transcends the classic floweriness of the ouillé wines, grasping at more complex flavors such as almonds and spice. It’s a sort of happy medium between the two approaches, making it a wine to enjoy any time of the year with a piece of comté.
This pinot noir, or spatburgunder in German, is so elegant it can almost border on austere. Indeed pinot noir from Germany is produced in a cooler climate, often resulting in more refined and reserved flavors, and the dominant ones here are cherry, black pepper and smoke. The visual for me is a couple dressed in black, dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Malmö, and sipping this wine can help one feel decidedly more adult – even after an afternoon drinking out of plastic cups at a patio bar.