Wines for Winter Stews
After the fancy and the schmancy of holiday entertaining and as we approach the last days of winter, a hearty homemade beef or lamb stew seems to be the best bet for a family supper or even for an informal dinner party. Maybe it’s because of a nostalgia for hearth and home that many of us share these days. Or perhaps it’s simply the communal spirit that comes from everyone helping themselves from a big stew pot at the center of the table. I’m not quite sure why, but somehow a stew’s warmth appears to go beyond the plate, creating a cozy atmosphere for those who partake in its melange of flavors.
Because a stew is so rich, finding the right wine to serve can be somewhat problematic. After all, the wine must work well not only with the meat but also with the aromatic vegetables. If the wine is too light, its flavor will be overwhelmed. On the other hand, too hearty a wine may either overpower the stew or conflict with its flavors rather than complement them.
Reds with good concentration, possessing full fruit flavor, are my choice for most stews. A robust stew, for instance, composed of thick cubes of beef and winter vegetables like turnips and parsnips along with the aromatic carrots, onions, and celery, calls for a well-balanced cabernet sauvignon or even a spicy Cotes du Rhone.
If you prefer a more peppery, spicy wine, try a Cotes du Rhone or Saint Joseph from the Rhone valley. These wines because of their full fruit and concentration complement the stew perfectly.
For a more traditional beef stew made only with the aromatics, try a wine with rich berry flavors and good alcohol content. In fact, why not make the wine part of the stew and cook with it. A marvelous recipe for this type of stew, beef zinfandel, can be found in Julia Child’s tome The Way To Cook. Beef, aromatic vegetables, tomatoes, herbs, and zinfandel simmer slowly for several hours to create one of the most succulent stews imaginable.
Choosing an appropriate wine to serve with a lamb stew depends largely on how the stew is prepared. The traditional Irish stew, which is generally unbrowned and cooked with onions and potatoes is best accompanied by a crisp, dry white with enough alcohol to stand up to the fatty lamb but with more subdued flavors than a red. An excellent choice would be the herbaceous sauvignon blanc or simple white Bordeaux.
On the other hand, if you are preparing a lamb stew that is browned like the French navarin printaniere, you might be better off with a Beaujolais or a burgundy. The reason is that these wines will have the necessary alcohol to stand up to the fat and sufficient fruit to complement the browned meat. Try a good Brouilly, a full-bodied Beaujolais, or a pinot noir from California.
The tastings for this feature were conducted on two evenings. The first tasting included six wines we thought suitable for a tasty all-American home-style beef stew. The second tasting was built around a more robust highly seasoned oxtail stew and included six additional wines. We tasted the wines before each meal and then with the stews.
The first evening began with a 1994 Domaine de l’Arlot Bourgogne ($15.99). Light garnet in color, with long, long legs, the wine offered a bouquet of red fruit with hints of cassis. A smooth silky entry was followed by what we found to be a thin wine with light pinot noir flavor. At best, this is a pretty wine from a less than spectacular vintage.
We followed this with a 1993 Monticello Corley Family Vineyards Pinot Noir ($17.99). The wine is ruby colored with a lovely bouquet of ripe berries and rose petals. The wine is rich, full bodied, and jammy on the tongue with a perfect acidity for food. Its rich black-cherry flavor encased by mild tannins and an adequate finish made this an excellent wine for our Amish beef stew. Let this wine breathe for at least an hour before serving.
We then proceeded to taste two Rhone wines.The first was a 1995 Domaine Gramenon, Le Gramenon, Cotes du Rhone ($10.99). Light ruby in color, the wine offers hints of celery on the nose. This is a light bodied Cotes du Rhone with cherry flavors complemented by hints of licorice. It has mild tannins that make it an enjoyably dry wine and a perfect accompaniment for the stew. Its price makes this wine an outstanding value.
Our second Rhone was a 1995 M. Chapoutier, Belleruche, Cotes du Rhone ($9.99). It has a light ruby color and an earthy bouquet. The wine is smooth on entry, but somewhat tannic and thin on the palate with artichoke and meaty flavors but almost no finish. I found this wine from a reputable producer a disappointment.
Our next wine was a 1990 Amiral de Beychevelle, Saint Julien, ($19.99). Deep purple in color with extraordinary legs, the wine has a classic Bordeaux bouquet of minerals and cedar. Full bodied and still somewhat tannic, it has a nice mid palate. On the tongue, there are meaty flavors with pepper and licorice followed by a good finish. The wine is beginning to show some age with fading color at the edge. This second label from the renowned Chateau Beychevelle is a good wine with cheese, but is perhaps too complex as an accompaniment for a stew.
We followed this wine with a 1993 Domaines Barons de Rothschild Bordeaux, Reserve Speciale ($9.99). The wine has a deep ruby color and long legs. However, this bottle has an off-nose that one taster characterized as “locker room.” It was smooth on entry and has an adequate body, but is way too tannic for the fruit. Its flavors are tobacco and red fruit. Indeed, there is so much tobacco on the palate that one taster commented “eau de Marlboro.”
For the second tasting, we went with more full bodied-wines. The first was 1995 Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo, Big House Red, California Red Wine ($9.99). Very deep red (although somewhat cloudy), this wine has a full bouquet of black berries and anise. Smooth on entry and full bodied, the wine has complex, dry, spicy, peppery flavors and a good mid palate. It’s jammy on the tongue and has a good finish. This is a great wine and a great value–but we all found it so complex that it competed with the oxtail stew.
The next wine was a 1994 Freestone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($14.99). Deep garnet in color with very long legs, the wine has a beefy nose. But its flavors were, at best, thin and the wine is still tannic. This wine might need some aging, but I can’t recommend this wine for now.
We went on to a 1995 Colombo Cotes du Rhone 100% Syrah ($10. 99) The wine is garnet colored with a lovely nose of vanilla and raspberries. It has a silky entry followed by strong black pepper flavors on the tongue. It fills the mouth but is not at all heavy. However, the wine has no finish, so that one is in one taster’s words “left wanting.”
A star of this second tasting was a 1993 McDowell Syrah, Mendocino ($9.99) Dark garnet with long luscious legs, the wine has an enchanting cheerful bouquet of black cherries. Very smooth on entry, it is jammy on the palate and delivers flavors of pepper and unripe peaches. It has a great spicy finish and proved to be a perfect accompaniment to our oxtail stew.
The 1994 Atlas Peak Sangiovese ($16.99) is deep garnet in color with a great bouquet full of vanilla, grass, red fruit and apples. Its smooth entry is followed by flavors of dark chocolate and spice that seem to jump off the tongue. The wine is full bodied and has a good finish. I highly recommend this wine.
The final wine of the evening was a 1990 E. Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape ($21.00). This is a textbook Chateauneuf. Deep ruby color, long long legs with the classic nose of black cherries, spice, pepper, and a hint of citrus. An impressive entry is followed by crisp flavors of celery and beef and jammy fruit. The wine has a great midpalate and a long finish. Try to find this wine; you will enjoy it.
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