Liquid soul 

A winter wonderland of wines and warmth

Soups, stews and pot roasts are fabulously soothing when it's crappy out. I hear stuff about comfort food and the like, but isn't it just because they warm the cockles of your soul? Winter seems to be the time when these dishes perform their best work, and heavier red wines share a similar calling. Why not combine them? When having a meal, try choosing your wine first, and then find something on a menu or in the fridge that complements it. This way, you feed your tummy and your soul-satisfying wine habit.

The habit begins with the grapes, which are the foundation of red wines, providing the heavier or lighter heft in the juice. Each piece of fruit carries its own personality, featuring tannins and flavor that provide the backbone of the wine. Then the winemaker employs certain methods during the fermentation and aging processes to either enhance or reduce these traits. One technique allows the skins and seeds of the grape -- where the tannins reside -- to macerate longer together, giving the wine a heavier, more tannic taste. Some people love this flavor; some don't. But it surely helps cold weather chow warm the cockles even more.

A classic, winter food wine is Cabernet Sauvignon since it's really difficult to slurp down a big, tannic beverage with cool summer fare. But introduce it to some beef stew, braised lamb shank or pork ragout and you've created a perfect match. As I've harped before, you should drink what you like, but try to match delicate foods with lighter wines and heavier foods with equally weighty wines.

Zinfandel, although plenty will argue with me on this point, is a fabulous food wine. With its fruity, earthy qualities, my favorite pairing is pot roast. Pot roast is braised beef with a hearty, roasted "brown" flavor, simmered in wine or broth for hours until tender. It is the quintessential American meal, and pairs nicely with the only American wine, Zinfandel.

A trendy mover and shaker on the wine scene is Syrah. Its popularity has grown exponentially since it is so approachable and friendly. Known as Shiraz in Aussie-speak, this grape provides a wide base of wine styles, from light and fruity to bold and spicy. The latter works best with richer, flavorful dishes. Think steak au poivre.

A distant cousin, Petite Sirah, is a really fun wine. It has been blended into other wines for centuries to add cool, deep purple color and depth to an otherwise dull, drab mix. Alone, it produces deliciously grapey, easy-drinking wines that love milder winter foods like baked beans or spare ribs.

Cabernet Franc, an underappreciated blending grape from Bordeaux, is peeking its head out of the bottle these days. Lighter in body than its brother Cabernet Sauvignon, it's more versatile and sociable as well. Since it's somewhat new to the stand-alone spotlight, not all winemakers have perfected the wine yet, but for those who have -- look out, it's good stuff. Cab Franc's raisin and berry flavors lend it to beef-based soups, nourishing ragouts with plenty of roasted vegetables and even grilled steaks. Pulling together all the flavors of a winter meal may sound challenging, but feeding the depressed winter soul is worth all the effort.

Recommended Wines
2000 Storybook Napa Estate Mayacamas Range Zinfandel ($25) Raspberry jammy with a touch of earthy tobacco on the tongue. The luscious finish leaves you begging for more. Pricey but worth the dough.

1997 Atlas Peak Vineyards Consenso Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) : This wonderful blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot creates a full-bodied, oaky and subtly fruity wine, suitable for hearty winter meals. The spice and cherry don't let go.

1999 Girard Petite Sirah ($25) : Yummy, yummy and big to boot. Black cherry and plum abound in this dark, mysterious liquid. Don't be afraid; it's really friendly.

1999 Conn Creek Cabernet Franc ($30) : Nice, smooth tannins with a chocolate-covered cherry kick. Fabulously smooth and easy to drink.


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