Wine review: Rich reds best quaffed by roaring fires

As the evenings draw in and the weather turns chilly, our thoughts turn to stews, blazing fires and warming red wines


Colder shorter days mean bigger, richer flavours. I start to cook heartier food; I haven’t thought about beef cheeks for the past six months, but now I have just ordered my first consignment to turn into a deeply satisfying stew. The game season is here too. Root vegetables and squashes will be roasted, or turned into warming soups. My choice of wine changes too.

Despite spending much of the year complaining about pumped-up,over-alcoholic wines, once the cold weather arrives I do yearn for red wines with a bit more warmth and oomph. There are plenty of options from around the world.

The southern Rhône valley is usually one of my first ports of call, and I will take a closer look at this region at a later date. It’s near neighbour, the Languedoc offers some of the most exciting and well-priced rich reds. Australian Shiraz is another obvious choice, and it certainly has a positive effect on the chill factor on a cold winter evening.

Even better would be a GSM or SGM, a blend of various proportions of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. All of these three warm-climate varieties generally produce wines with an enveloping blast of heat. Grenache doesn’t really ripen until it hits a potential of 14.5-15 per cent alcohol, so it can always be relied upon to deliver power. The McLaren Vale and Barossa both produce very good examples.

Spain, with its warm southern climate, offers a number of possibilities. This is the original home of the Garnacha variety and it gives an extra kick of power to many red-wine blends. Higher levels of alcohol do not always mean a full-bodied wine. Both French Grenache and Spanish Garnacha can, in the right hands, have a silky delicacy of fruit that somehow still manages to balance perfectly in wines with 14.5-15 per cent alcohol.

Tempranillo, often light and elegant in Rioja, changes completely when grown in Ribera del Duero and Toro into muscular wines fit for cold winter evenings. Lamb would be the local favourite but beef stews are an equally good match.

Argentina has its Malbec, covered here recently, and California offers Zinfandel. Pinot Noir is not exactly big and powerful but it does go perfectly with game. Besides, there is something warming about Pinot, and as it ages it does take on those decaying “sous-bois” aromas reminiscent of autumn.

I will cover fortified wines – Port, Sherry and Madeira – in the coming weeks, but in the meantime remember that these are amongst the most comforting fireside wines to sip gently on a chilly evening.

Post-budget blues
I didn’t write about the budget beforehand because I simply didn’t believe the Minister could add any more to the incredibly high price we pay for a bottle of wine. This may have been a budget for the coping classes, but they obviously don’t drink wine. A couple drinking a modest three bottles of wine a week now pays the Government more than €650 a year for the pleasure.

Given that importers treat excise duty as a cost, the increase in the price of a bottle over the past year is considerably more than €1.50, more like €2. The minimum you now pay in tax every time you pop the cork on a bottle of wine is €4, but usually it is a lot more as there is 23 per cent vat on wine.

Through my job, I have come to know many of the men and women responsible for selling wine in this country. Despite the impression given in some sectors of the media, none are cold-blooded drug pushers determined to sell cheap alcohol to naive teenagers.

Most are responsible hard-working small business people trying to make an honest living. Most have a genuine interest in selling good and interesting wine. Yet Government policy seems designed to drive these people out of business while at the same time doing nothing to address the serious problems associated with alcohol abuse. We hear constantly about the importance of local business to a town or village. Your local off-licence or wine shop is certainly part of that community.

The latest increases will only be reversed if revenue decreases as wine buyers shop in the North or France. But that only makes life even more difficult for these struggling businesses. Yet amongst the gloom, it is good to see a new venture, Clontarf Wines run by Helena and Ronnie Caraher, open up. I wish them well.

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