Wintery Whites | A Lesson on Lees

 'tis the season of chilly evenings and hearty stews that carry us through hibernation. But while this Autumn might see us experimenting with ingredients we hadn't discovered this time last year, we can't help but notice our approach to Winter Wines is never quite so exploratory. Red Wines tend to sit top of mind and menu - but we think it's time we spotlighted the White Wines so often overlooked at this time of year. We've explored and explained one of the key winemaking techniques to look out for when you're picking a White Wine as golden as the dropping leaves.

 

Drinking with the Seasons

At Sociovino we believe in drinking with the seasons – and while you may consider this somewhat of a given (we all, after all, know just too well what it feels like for Rosé season to end, or when it’s time to bring out the Aperol), we’ve noticed that the majority of people’s understandings of what it actually means to drink seasonally is quite limited, given the age-old approach of “know what you like, like what you know”. Simply put, certain wines are better suited to certain times of year, and the produce that takes centre stage on our plates through those months. Perhaps that sounds pretty obvious. That’s because it is. However, without the opportunity to learn about different winemaking techniques, we can fall into the trap of simplicity: Red Wines in Winter, White Wines and Rosé in summer. The result is a limited awareness of the plethora of options that exist for us to enjoy across different times of year, such as light-bodied, chillable Reds for Summer evenings, or fleshy, spiced and full-bodied Whites for Winter.

 

wintery white wines

You can read in more depth about our approach to Seasonal Drinking here. For now, however, we’re taking some time to open up the latter – Winter Whites - an area of wine that, despite being prevalent across restaurant and bar wine lists from September through to the New Year and beyond, doesn’t always come to mind when we’re searching for sips to keep us cosy through chillier months at home.

 

Winter is for Red Wines

At around the same time the more organised among us start to unzip our vacuum-packed and non-moth-holed knitwear, we also settle into endless months of Red Wines. There’s nothing wrong with that attitude (to knitwear or wine) – and I’ll admit that my most recent trips out to eat have all included an order of Red because, as we said around the table, “finally we’re allowed to”. Darker evenings and unpacked knitwear ushers in a nationwide understanding that red wine is the “right thing do to” – it’s best practice for Autumn, if you will.

 

winter red wines

 

But, for many – and I’m undecided at this moment as to whether this includes the Vacuum-Packers or the Moth-Eaten Massive – it’s well known that an opulent, creamy White Wine can offer just as much warmth and comfort in the cold seasons as an inky glass of Red, and that the shift from Summer to Autumn brings with it a whole new range of drops that have been in hibernation since we left it.

 

Whether you’re already celebrating their renaissance or aren’t as well acquainted with what you could be drinking outside of Nebbiolo in the Winter months, here’s a guide to the kind of wines it’s well and truly time to explore, and why they’re so beautifully matched to the foods of the season.

 

Winter foods, naturally, bring a lot of heart to the table, but not all of them are ready to stand up to sky high tannins and a teeth-reddening depth of flavour. Take one of our Autumn Case recipes, for example -  a saffron and roast squash risotto that’s both ethereally aromatic, comfortingly creamy, yet surprisingly light and, of course, meat free. For this dish, which celebrates the centre-pieces of Autumnal produce at their height, a bolder White Wine is far better suited to highlighting its nuances than a Red Wine, whilst sustaining the level of comfort we crave from a wine at this time of year.

 

risotto 

The reason? As ever, it comes down to pairing and contrasting flavours between the plate and the pour. The notes of many winter spices and flavours, including vanilla, cream, butter, roasted nuts, warm spices and hardy herbs pair beautifully with White Wines piqued by the same notes, with the best approach to pairing being to look at the texture, creaminess, and spiciness of the dish, and seeking its resemblance in a wine.

 

Next, we explore the opposites. Dry White Wines that are high in acidity and boast a generous alcohol level can stand up to Winter’s heavier foods that tend towards meatiness or fattiness, using strength of body, concentration of flavour and height of acidity to cut through Winter’s bold and savoury flavours.

 

Grapes made for Winter:

On  a top level, then, let’s explore a few grape varieties or wines that can exist in delicious partnership with some of Autumn and Winter’s best bites.

 

  • Chardonnay – California, Burgundy, Langhe, New Zealand
    • Flavours:
      • Vanilla, butter, caramel and citrus
    • Zoom in:
      • Langhes Chardonnay DOC pair beautifully with wintery cheese-based dishes, such as fondus or raclettes. They’re generally characterised by a straw yellow colour and fruity flavours, and benefit from slightly higher serving temperatures, around 8-10 degrees Celsius.
    • Food Pairings:
      • Chicken, turkey, sea bass, lobster, gruyere, mushrooms, creamy pastas and soups

 

  • Viognier – Northern Rhone, Stellenbosch, South Australia
    • Flavours:
      • Peach, tangerine, honeysuckle, vanilla, nutmeg, clove
    • Food Pairings:
      • Guinea Fowl, chicken tagine, roast turkey, lobster, poached salmon, baked brie and apricots

 

  • Aged White Rioja (Viura) -- Rioja
    • Flavours:
      • Roasted pineapples, caramelized honey, hazelnuts, lemon curd
    • Food Pairings:
      • Hearty fish stews, grilled lobster, roast chicken, pork and creamy sauces, sheep cheeses

 

  • Aged Ribolla Gialla – Italy
    • Flavours:
      • Yellow fruits, hazelnuts, stone, citrus, honey
    • Food Pairings:
      • Prosciutto ham, salted nuts, hard cheese, herbal sauces and chicken or fish, spaghetti vongole

 

  • Verdicchio – Italy
    • Flavours:
      • Citrus, peach, pear, apple, tropical fruits, vanilla, toasted wood, bitter almond
    • Food pairings:
      • Seafood risotto, spaghetti vongole, pesto pasta

 

  • Off-dry Riesling – Mosel, Rheingau, Franken
    • Flavours:
      • Lime, green apple, beeswax, honey, kerosene, ginger
    • Food Pairings:
      • Mature gruyere, goat’s cheese, Asian dishes, duck, pork, shrimp

 

  • Champagne:
    • Flavours:
      • Apple, pear, citrus, cream, vanilla, nuts, brioche, toast
    • Food Pairings:
      • Fried mushrooms, macaroni cheese, squash ravioli with brown butter sage, oysters, truffle

 

Winemaking for winter

Generally, what makes these wines so perfectly suited to our heartier dishes of the cold months, is the winemaking techniques they undergo, used as a means of bringing the very best out of the grape varieties in question or, simply, in order to create a different style of wine from a grape with versatility – like a chef’s use of salt, where either a little or a lot has the ability to totally transform a dish. When it comes to White Wines, the two key winemaking techniques that set your Wintery White from your Summer thirst-quencher are:

  • Oak aging
  • Lees aging

 

While the former is, as with any winemaking technique, interesting to explore in its own right, for the purpose of this article we’ll keep it short:

 

Oak Aging:

Oak aging involves storing a wine for any length of time in an oak vessel (or, in cheaper wines, stirring oak staves through a wine to replicate this process). The vessel might be little (ensuring higher surface area contact and thus a greater imparting of flavour) or large; it might be a new vessel, or one that’s been used multiple times before; it might have been heavily toasted, or just lightly; it made be French, or American, or made of cherry wood, chestnut or pine. The list of possible variations goes on, all of which play a role in defining the extent to which a White Wine is oak impacted.

 

In summary, oak aging will – to a greater or lesser extent – impart the following:

  • Flavours of vanilla, mocha, caramel, toffee or honey
  • Less bright, crisp and fresh fruit flavours
  • Deeper colour, depending on time spent in oak
  • Rounder flavours and a fuller mouth feel

 

All of the above mean an oak-aged White can be a stunning option for a wine through the wintery months.

 

oak aging 

Lees Aging:

For the sake of exploring a slightly lesser-known term, let’s explore in a little more depth the second winemaking technique on our list: lees aging, a process which can be used in conjunction with oak, or on its own as a means of imparting intriguing textures and flavours to a White Wine – again, making it a great starting point when it comes to seeking out more complex wines that keep out the cold.

First off, what do we mean by lees? Lees are the leftover yeast particles from autolysis, which is the process of the self-destruction of yeast cells  by enzymes created during fermentation.

 

There are, in fact, two types of lees:

Gross lees:

  • Think of these as ‘fat’ lees – this refers to any sediment left behind after fermentation. In white wine production, that wouldn’t include the skins, but might include any of the solid fleshy parts of the grape that made it into the fermentation vessel.
  • These tend to siphon themselves off by dropping to the bottom of the vessel and are then removed from the wine quite quickly before they can impart much flavour.

 

Fine lees:

  • These, unsurprisingly, are smaller particles that settle more slowly in a wine and are used to bring new profiles to your pour.

 

Where do the flavours and textures come from?

As the yeast cells start to break down during the process of autolysis, the cells release tiny quantities of sugars and proteins (amino acids), the presence of which is sensed on our tongues as a sensation of weightiness or increased body. As a result of leaving our lees in contact with the wine for longer, autolysis can continue to occur, increasing the presence of sugars and amino acids and, thus, making for a creamier, richer full-bodied wine.

But lees aging doesn’t simply contribute to a wine’s texture. Ever heard someone describe a wine as bready? Brimming with brioche? Perfumed with pastry or reminiscent of a soft cheese?

They aren’t mad, we promise. Lees aging also contributes to a wine’s flavour profile as fatty acids from the yeast cell walls are released on break down, which adds aromas that help boost a white wine’s readiness for winter, and which can vary depending on the wine or grape variety in question.

As a rule of thumb, when you read that a wine has been aged on lees – or ‘sur lie’ – you can expect to pick up increased flavours and aromas of toast, bread, butter-brioche, croissant, buttermilk and sometimes sweet, nutty aromas. Lees aging in oak will mean you’re also treated to the likes of caramel, smoke and clove – which, we think you’ll agree sound blooming delicioso in conjunction with our bakery-waft booze.

 

tschida white wine

 

As ever, the extent to which you’ll be able to pick up on these notes can vary – depending both on your own palate, but most evidently on the winemaker’s choice. The process can last from a couple of months to several years, and can be encouraged by a process called ‘battonage’, which involves the winemaker stirring the lees through the wine to increase their contact surface area.

As with oak aging – and nearly all winemaking techniques – certain wines will respond better than others to this process, and the flavours and textures it imparts.

 

Our Recommendations:

If you’re tempted to dip your toe into some wintery whites bursting with beautifully inviting textures and flavours, here are some classic lees-aged wines, as well as some of our favourite examples from the Sociovino selection. To make sure you really get the best out of these bottles, try serving them at a slightly higher temperature to your crisp whites - around 8-10 degrees celsius. It will help to ensure you can experience the full cacophony of flavour and texture these drops are capable of.

 

Classic lees-aged wines:

  • Albariño – these beautifully concentrated, ageworthy wines sit in the minority in comparison to stainlesss steel Albariños made to drink young, fresh and salty.
  • Muscadet Sevre et Maine – this is the largest sub-appellation of the Loire’s Muscadet region, producing wines aged on lees for at least six months.
  • Chardonnay (Burgundy)
  • Champagne
    • By law, Non-Vintage Champagne must spend 12 months on lees, and 15 in bottle before sale
    • Vintage Champagne must spend a minimum of 36 months on lees

 

risotto and wine Try this pairing in our Autumn Case

Sociovino’s Recommendations for Wintery Whites:

Albariño Tradición, Lagar de Costa, 2018

The Galicians prefer slightly more flavour extraction from the grape, prolonged lees contact, and an extra year of bottle age to soften the acidity, brighten the fruit character, and help the honeyed notes develop. In this Lagar de Costa Albariño Tradicion, they do just this and showcase the Albariño that the Galicians want to drink, it is the style steeped in their traditions. After fermentation, Sonia ages this wine in a large, old French oak barrel which does wonders for the texture of the wine. Another 12 months in bottle before release and we are gifted with this magical white that is as complex as it is charming. If you have the patience, a couple more years in bottle would only add to its character.

 

Cialla Bianco, Ronchi di Cialla, 2017

This is a minimal intervention blend from Friuli, offering the perfect marriage between firm fruit notes of white plum and pear, herbal edges of dried thyme, and a savoury, creaminess that makes this a brilliant accompaniment to Autumn's herbal and subtly sweet comfort foods (namely, George William's Roast Squash and Saffron Risotto, included in our Autumn Case). There is a lovely texture to this wine which is lifted by the acidity brought by the Ribolla Gialla grape. Lightly oxidative, the nutty notes in the wine work amazingly with so many foods from this season.

 

Veneto Bianco, Gran Passione, 2020

Producing wines of unbeatable quality at this price point, the Gran Passione Bianco is a blend of Garganega and Chardonnay. It offers peach and honeysuckle notes, alongside hints of vanilla and a warming palate. Dry and crisp, with the ripe fruit flavours balancing out perfectly with the acidity, its round mouthfeel succumbs to generous flavour.

 

Terlaner Cuvée, Cantina Terlano

From Alpine vineyards in Alto Adige, Northern Italy. This is the signature blend from this world-famous Italian cooperative, Cantina Terlano. Green apple, white peach, white flowers, lemon balm, almond, and mint. Fresh, mineral, and wonderfully persistent. A stunning blend which is full of character. Manual harvest and selection of the grapes; gentle whole cluster pressing and clarification of the must by natural sedimentation; slow fermentation at a controlled temperature in stainless steel tanks, aging on the lees for 5-7 months partly in stainless steel tanks (80%) and partly in big wooden barrels (20%)

 

Gumpoldskirchner 'Tradition', Johanneshof Reinisch, 2019

If ever there were a wine of place, the Gumpoldskirchner from Johanneshof Reinisch would be it. Made from two grape varieties found only in this small growing area, Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, the wine made here takes the name of the quaint village, Gumpoldskirchen. Ripe apples, peaches and apricots and joined by honeyed lemons and a soft, warming, spicy finish. There is a hint of sweetness here that is balanced by the super fresh acidity and medium to full body. This will stand up to a lot of flavoursome foods, we recommend, Schnitzel, pork chop with a creamy sauce or asparagus risotto.

 

If you’re excited to indulge in some exploration when it comes to wintery whites, built with body and concentrated flavours, there are few better pairings for these wines than a Fondue Savoyarde or black truffles. Yes chef!

 

You can also find many of the wines above plus many more White Wines selected for Autumn in the Autumn Case of our Seasonal Subscription - with more to come for Winter.

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