Plus, exactly how to buy the right bottle for fall and winter (whites included).

By Betty Gold
November 04, 2020
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As the chillier weather and darker days approach, our palates start to crave warm, full-bodied flavors. And as we trade in summer salads and barbecue fare for roasted veggies and other comforting cold weather recipes, it’s time to also transition our wine selections to bottles that help enhance the autumnal flavors of our food. 

“While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are great go-tos, the seasonal change presents an opportunity to explore a new selection of wines,” explains Christopher Hoel, founder of Harper’s Club and Luckysomm, and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. Below are a few lesser-known—but equally enticing—wines that practically beg to be uncorked in cold weather months. Whether you’re sipping them by the fireplace or pairing them with your favorite meal, Hoel knows you’ll love warming up with one of these five fall wines.

Cozy up with a glass of this quintessential Italian wine. Grown in the foothills of East-Central Italy, Montepulciano D'Abruzzo is a deep wine with dark fruit flavors, a spicy nose and a welcomed dry finish. “I like to pair it with red meats, like brisket or lamb chops, and taste how the acidity and tannin cut through rich flavors,” Hoel says. “But, don’t let this dark horse fool you. Its high acidity and tannin levels also make it a great companion for a variety of vegetarian options, like mushroom or red/black bean dishes and rich roasted vegetables.”

Gamay’s lighter body is a perfect transition wine when you’re not quite ready to dive into the bold winter reds. It grows primarily next to Burgundy, France in a region called Beaujolais, which makes it a (sort of) cousin of Pinot Noir. Most loved for its floral aromas, red fruit, subtle earthy notes, and surprising versatility, Gamay is exceptionally easy to drink. Plus, it pairs well with all types of dishes—seafood included—and plays nicely with staple Thanksgiving herbs and spices such as sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, and fennel. According to Hoel, to fully enjoy the flavors and aromas, Gamay is best served slightly chilled and in a wide glass (similar to one you’d use for Pinot Noir).

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If you’re not big on reds, don’t sweat. The cooler weather doesn’t have to equate to fewer options. In fact, few wines pair as nicely with fall than a Chenin Blanc. “Not only does it commonly have an amber hue that mimics the changing leaves, its apple and pear nose are quintessential fall aromas,” explains Hoel. Flavors vary widely between bottles, but one constant is Chenin Blanc’s ability to pair well with fall favorites, including butternut squash soup, roasted parsnips, and pork—each bringing out that apple-y nose. “I do always like to remind customers that with an unexpected acidity, Chenin Blanc may not be a family crowd-pleaser, but because each bottle offers an individual experience, it’s a great wine to sip solo by the fire.”

Riesling has a reputation for being very sweet, but that isn’t always trueーthere is a whole category of Rieslings that are dry or even off-dry, and they shouldn’t be overlooked. These varieties are almost always pure and unoaked, boasting natural flavors profiles of apple, apricot, peach, and pear. “Considered one of the world’s greatest food wines, the balanced flavor means it’ll pair with just about anything, but I find it goes particularly well with spicy foods,” Hoel recommends. He also has a genius tip for making sure you’re choosing a dry Riesling: “Check the alcohol content. Higher alcohol content will mean a drier wine, while lower alcohol wines tend to be sweeter.”

When you think of sparkling wine, you might not think red. “Well, Lambrusco will challenge that age-old assumption,” says Hoel. It’s one of Italy’s oldest wines and said to date back to the Bronze Age. Made from grapes of the same name, Lambrusco is loved for its light effervescence and slightly lower alcohol content. “It can range from dry to sweet, but, in my opinion, the best are dry (secco) or barely sweet (semisecco). Quickly becoming one of my fall favorites, the light sparkle means this wine pairs great with savory or fatty foods.” Serve it alongside your next charcuterie and cheese spread or classic Italian red sauce pastas.

Tips for Choosing the Right Bottle of Wine for Fall

Regardless of what you’re in the mood for, understanding why certain wines are good for the fall will help you choose one best suited for the season. When selecting a bottle, Hoel says to consider three aspects: acidity, alcohol content, and the wine’s region.

Acidity in wine pairs well with fatty and sweet foods, both staples in our holiday meals. Where a highly acidic drink can cut through fatty foods and introduce a range of flavors, it also provides a necessary balance to sweetness.

Alcohol content is often an indication of whether the wine will be sweet or dry. Typically, the higher the alcohol content, the drier the wine. This becomes especially important when planning food pairings. A good rule of thumb is sweet wines pair better with savory foods, counteracting the indulgent flavor profiles instead of overwhelming them.

Lastly, consider where the wine comes from. Where a grape is grown will change the characteristics of a wine considerably. For example, grapes grown in colder climates don’t ripen as quickly, resulting in a higher acidity and lower sugar content. Here, Hoel likes to encourage 'what grows together, goes together.' “Pair wines with foods from the same region,” he says. “So if you’re planning to eat a lot of pasta or red meats this fall, Italian wines are a safe bet.”

A good fall wine should be like our favorite sweaters: warm and comforting. That’s not to say it isn’t the perfect time to embrace change and let the seasonal transition usher in new wines, but there’s no harm in sticking with what you love either.