Drink to the Contrary: Reach for white wines this winter

A bottle of Château Pégau (2016) Cuvée Lône White (Côtes du Rhône) // Photo by Aaron Job

A bottle of Château Pégau (2016) Cuvée Lône White (Côtes du Rhône) // Photo by Aaron Job

There’s an invisible line that we Minnesotans feel in our bones, and when the thermometer dips below, there’s no going back. I’m talking about the transition from the refreshing white wines or rosés we rocked all summer long to the hearty red wines that we stick with all winter long.

Even if it warms up for a few days after that first chill, it seems impossible to go back.

But that tendency isn’t as sacrosanct as it used to be, and I’ll thank the new generation of wine drinkers for that. They don’t seem to be as beholden to the old ways of wine and it’s blowing the cobwebs out of some old wine adages.

Humans don’t generally like to drink cold things in cold seasons. Coffee shops see a surge in business in cooler months and hot tea boxes in restaurants that were largely ignored all summer get dusted off the second the fleece and flannel appear. In the wine world, reds are made for winter for one simple reason: higher alcohol. Putting ethanol in our bodies triggers a reaction that makes us feel warmer; just ask those folks bar-hopping in February in short sleeves and dresses (come on, we’ve all done it at some point).

But it’s not a metabolic effect—it’s a dilation of vessels, moving blood closer to the surface of our skin (and causing that flushed look). Lower alcohol white wines don’t have as much of this effect, for the obvious reason of them being served cold, but also having lower levels of alcoholreds make us feel warmer because they’re served at room temperature and have more alcohol. This seems obvious, but there’s science behind the anecdote.

Now that we’re in February, you may be growing more and more sick of winter with every shovel of wet snow and every 17 percent ABV zinfandel. Is there a wine, perhaps something less thick and jammy, that still has some heartiness and body, and maybe some alcohol to keep our blood vessels dilated, that’s made from white grapes?

There is, in fact. Here are three ideas:

Full-bodied (meaning higher alcohol) blends, like Côtes du Rhône blanc. These are usually blends of Marsanne, Roussanne, and sometimes Viognier. Sometimes has a little oak, sometimes not. Can come from either France or some great small producers in California. Ask your wine shop about their favorites (they probably have several and they’ll love that you want to try them).

Orange wine, or white wines made like reds, with skin contact that imparts a bronze/orange color to the wine. This process adds body without adding alcohol and makes the wine more savory than citrus-driven. These wines are typically less filtered, adding even more complexity. My only word of warning here is that some of them can be very funky, crossing into faulty (my thoughts on that here) so again, ask your wine shop peeps for some recommendations.

Rosé. Yes, rosé. Wait, hear me out. More and more wine shops and restaurants are carrying rosé wines year-round, sometimes on purpose and sometimes because that invisible line was crossed and they were stuck with inventory. Either way, rosés have a wonderful way of losing some of their acid (crispness) as they near that year-old mark, softening into awesome winter sippers. Serve them slightly warmer than you would in the summer and gulp away. Rosés made from Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Gamay tend to do this the best, in my opinion, and right about now the shops are looking to unload last year’s wines to make way for this year’s releases, so they’re probably on sale. “Winter Rosés,” as I call them, are delicious!