The conventional knowledge goes: drink white wines in the summer, and reds in the winter. And that sentiment is not without reason. Red wines are frequently higher in alcohol and tannins than their pale counterparts, making them feel too heavy for hot weather imbibing. The extra alcohol often has a warming effect, and the astringent tannins in a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon or Italian Barolo could overpower delicate flavors of fresh summer foods. On the other hand, high-acid white wines, like sauvignon blanc or a low-alcohol vhino verde, taste refreshing beyond bottle temperature thanks to bright citrus flavors and light fruits notes. In general, many prefer crisp, delicate wines during summer months. But, that’s not to say exceptions for colors and seasons don't exist. For example, French Beaujolais or Spanish mencía are red wines so light and fruity that they taste wonderful chilled. Meanwhile, white sherries and chardonnays can be rich enough to feel like a blanket on cold wintery nights.
... just because a wine contains some sugar, doesn’t mean it’s a dessert wine, or that it will even taste sweet.
To find a white wine suited to winter, look for richer bottles that can stand up to hearty cold weather stews and roasted vegetables. Some grape varietals, like pinot gris or chenin blanc, have a naturally creamy texture or funkiness that makes them taste fuller, while other whites are produced in a way that softens natural acids, yielding a wine that feels bigger, rounder, and warmer. For example, white wines that have been aged in oak absorb warm flavors from the wood, which can impart spicy aromas of cinnamon or nutmeg. California is famous for making chardonnay that’s unapologetically oaky and full of baking spice, with heavy butter notes to boot. These wines' famous buttery flavor comes from a winemaking process known as malolactic fermentation, when tart malic acid naturally present in grapes is covered to softer, more mellow lactic acid. Wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation are often described as creamy, buttery, or even yogurt-y. Winemakers can choose to put a wine through malo, as it's known for short, to create juice that's lush and round, rather than bright and refreshing.
Leaving a little bit of sweetness (known as residual sugar) in a wine is another way a producer adds texture to juice. But, just because a wine contains some sugar, doesn’t mean it’s a dessert wine, or that it will even taste sweet. Slightly off-dry options, like many German rieslings or French Vouvrays, gain body and structure from sugar without tasting like candy. Acid and sugar cancel each other out in wine, too. A riesling might contain a small amount of residual sugar, but if the wine has enough acid, the acid will counter-balance any sweetness so the wine does not feeling cloying. It might seem strange to imagine drinking a slightly sweet wine with dinner, but consider how frequently savory foods contain sugar. In fact, a wine with a little bit of residual sugar is the perfect complement to a slightly sweet dish.
For those really cold days, a little bit of earthy funkiness from an unusual varietal or an oxidative process will yield a hearty and food-friendly wine. White wines made with incorporated oxygen, like Spanish sherries or some wines from France’s Jura region, take on cheesy, nutty flavors that help them stand up to even the creamiest winter stews. Below, six white wines to drink during winter.
Wine: Vouvray, 2014
From: Vouvray, France
Many wines from Vouvray contain a touch of sweetness, but this bottle is totally dry. Even without any perceptible sugar, it’s full of ripe fruit and a hint of honey. Champalou's Vouvray goes beyond simple apple and pear flavors, displaying bright tropical fruits like pineapple, and white flower aromas. But it’s not all about ripe sweet fruit; this bottle is 100 percent chenin blanc, and it boasts a little bit of the grape’s signature underlying funkiness. Chenin is often said to have wooly flavors, making it an appropriately cozy choice for winter. These musty tones add an element of interest that take this wine beyond the simple pleasure of fruit.
Producer: Philippe Bornard
Wine: Vin Jaune, 2006
From: Jura, France
Vin jaune wines are only produced in France's eastern Jura region, near the border of Switzerland. Like a fino sherry, these wines are aged under a mold called flor, and they’re exposed to more oxygen than traditional table wines. But, unlike sherry, they aren’t fortified with grape spirits. These wines are lower in alcohol and higher in acid than sherry, but they’re just as rich. They usually display a complex nutty flavor, with a hint of saline. Phillipe Bornard's vin jaune is lush and savory, with flavors of baked yellow apples, blanched almonds, and even briny, salty olives—a perfect choice for shellfish or creamy winter stews.
Producer: Hugel et Fils
Wine: Pinot Gris Classic, 2012
From: Alsace, France
Pinot gris—one of the most versatile food wines around—is a grape varietal known for its full body and subtle aromatics. This bottle is from Alsace, where the cool climate keeps the grapes from ripening too quickly, ensuring wine with balanced acid. Expect a light, flowery scent with hints of lily, lemon peel, ripe yellow apple, and bitter almond skin. Pinot gris’ naturally rich texture makes it a partner with any number of hearty or meaty dishes, from terrines to saucy fish.
Producer: André Clouet
Wine: Millésimé, 2008
From: Champagne, France
No wine is more cheerful than Champagne. Its bright acidity and effervescence are the perfect antidote to seasonal affective depression. This bottle from producer André Clouet—one of the smaller estates in Champagne—is an excellent value. Clouet is family-run, and produces complex wines without the hefty price tag of a pedigreed Champagne house like Dom Perignon. It’s full of ripe red apples, chalky minerality, and toasty brioche flavors. Because this wine is fairly high in acid, it is a good complement to salty foods—from caviar to fried chicken.
Producer: Thomas Fogarty
Wine: Chardonnay, 2011
From: Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Thomas Fogarty is a buttery, oaky Chardonnay that’s slightly grown-up. This 100 percent Chardonnay is aged in 20 percent new French oak, but doesn’t taste like chewing on a barrel. Instead, the oak is well-integrated, and gives the wine plenty of rich, warm cinnamon spice, and a hint of vanilla without overpowering the grapes' natural apple flavors. This wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation, which results in a milky taste and texture. It’s a perfect match with creamy pastas or squash dishes.
Producer: Domaine Laroche
Wine: Chablis, Saint Martin, 2013
From: Chablis, France
To really lean into winter, try Chablis. Wines from Chablis are 100 percent chardonnay, but they don’t taste of cinnamon and vanilla like California chardonnays often do. In Chablis, chardonnay grapes grow in a cold climate on limestone soils that were once seabeds. The soil is the root of this wine’s ocean minerality, and the cool climate produces a wine that’s lean and lightly fruity. Hints of cream and yogurt from malic acid lends a full texture that helps this bottle stand up to rich foods. Domaine Laroche's Chablis show flinty and saline notes, and it's versatile enough to match with oysters or classic French cuisine.