Why the bias? Well, to start with, unless you're living in the Southern Hemisphere, this time of year usually equals chilly, wet weather. Drinking a white wine (aside from Champagne or sparkling wine, which can be drunk 365 days a year without excuse) at this point would be akin to wearing a bikini to run your Saturday errands: It's generally considered inappropriate. Perhaps the most obvious rationale encouraging us to reach for a red is the simple fact that most red wines should be served at cellar temperature (aka 55 degrees or slightly warmer) where a typical white wine is served about 10 degrees colder thank that. Just think of that glass of merlot the same way you'd think of a mugful of warm milk, only with more entertaining side effects.
Now that we've established that most truly great comfort wines are red wines, let's move on to another important characteristic: spice. In red wines, spiciness comes across to the drinker via flavors like toast (usually from the wine's time spent in oak), baking spices (nutmeg, clove, and the like), and pepper (black, white, green -- you name it). Spice characteristics in wine are the equivalent to ingredients like jalapeno or chipotle peppers added to a dish; they equal heat. So for the same reason you crave that hearty bowl of chili when it's snowing outside, a bold, spicy shiraz just might be the perfect wine to pour when you need a little comforting of the liquid kind.
If the description of a truly great comfort wine had to be condensed into a single adjective, that word would have to be 'hearty.' You might be tempted to ask, "Aren't all red wines pretty hearty?" The answer is, not necessarily. Lighter-style reds like youthful Beaujolais (made from the gamay grape) or barberas produced in northwestern Italy connote softer, gentler images. The winter months call for full-throated, intense reds that make you sit up a little taller after the first swirl, sniff and sip. Two of the more popular red wine grapes that step up to the plate: zinfandel and petite syrah.
There are lots of comforting wines to choose from, but here are five that I receommend:
Juan Gil Monastrell 2007 ($16): Monastrell is the Spanish equivalent of mourvedre, the grape representing the 'M' in well-known GSM (grenache/syrah/mourvedre) blends from around the world. Black cherries, prunes, and clove flavors get along famously with the firm tannins and earthy spice notes you'll find alongside them. Perfect to drink alone, or if you're still working on developing your palate for old-world wines, serve with braised short ribs over soft polenta.
Torbreck "Woodcutters" Shiraz 2008 ($19): This wine pretty much hits all of the comfort-wine points discussed above, but with a core brimming with flavors of juicy blackberry and blueberry pie. Drink it with pork.
Vinos Sin Ley Puerta Bonita "G5" Garnacha 2007 ($14): Like monastrell, garnacha is another grape grown in Spain better known by its French moniker, grenache. The technical term in the wine business for most grenache-based wines is "boozy," and at 14.5% alcohol the Puerta Bonita doesn't disappoint. Don't be fooled by the bonanza of fruit-bomb flavors you'll taste right off the bat: This wine is saturated with all kinds of spice, including cinnamon, allspice and soft black pepper. It's so delicious, you'll probably want to drink it with everything, but it's best suited for an equally bold, meaty dish: beef brisket or braised lamb shank.
Peachy Canyon "Incredible Red" 2007 ($12): Peachy Canyon has made a name for itself producing a slew of award-winning (and pricey) Paso Robles zinfandels. Here's a super tasty, blackberry jam of a wine that's cheap enough for you to cuddle up to on a chilly Tuesday night. Definitely lighter in style than your typical zin, it's smooth-drinking enough to sip on its own.
Mapema Malbec 2006 ($19): Ready to drink right this minute with everything from a burger with blue cheese to rack of lamb, this one's full-bodied, lush and juicy, with a chocolate-y finish. Bonus: It's everything you want in a comfort wine and tastes way more expensive than it is.
What's your favorite winter comfort wine?