As the long stretch of winter looms, many of us food and wine lovers are getting ready for evenings in, sitting by the fire, and cooking nice, warming meals.My favourite dish for these nights is a hearty stew. We make several versions in our household, all variations on a basic recipe. You can use either beef or lamb, and the choice of herbs and vegetables is up to you.
I tend to go heavy on the spices, including cumin, coriander, cayenne and turmeric, and I sometimes add Italian dried herbs, rosemary and mint (if it is lamb), cilantro and perhaps some parsley. For veggies, we use onions, mushrooms, carrots and potato, sometimes sweet potato or parsnip. Wine, stock and a splash of balsamic vinegar make up the liquid, and we season with salt and pepper.
This spicy stew is best complemented by a similarly warm and spicy red. Those based on Syrah/Shiraz are good, as are Argentina's Malbecs, and full, dry Spanish or Portuguese reds.One of the best spicy stew reds, though, is California Zinfandel. I developed a taste for it on my first trip to that state, and whenever I'm fortunate enough to get back there, I indulge in what I think is the signature wine of the state.
According to Anthony Hawkins' Wine Grape Glossary, Zinfandel is "thought to be the variety advertised in the 1830s as the Zinfandal by a Long Island, N.Y., nursery and possibly also called Black St. Peter in early 19th-century California vineyard lore."
Folks in the wine industry seem to fret over the origin of Zinfandel more than any other grape. Current thinking is that the name came from a mix-up with Zierfandler, a white grape from Europe. While we used to think Zinfandel's original source was Italy's Primitivo, DNA analysis has identified Zinfandel's original home name as Crljenak Kaštelanski of Croatia, also known as Pripidrab or Tribidrag. Some California grape geneticists now refer to it as ZPC, owing to its various names.
Whatever its proper name, Zinfandel has interesting aroma and flavour characteristics that make it an important grape, occupying an estimated 10 per cent of California vineyards.While used extensively for simple and sweet blush ("white" Zin), the best wines are the dry reds.They have a pleasing ripe berry nose and "brambly" spicy, peppery aromas, as well as bright acidity on the palate.
Zin is not particularly tannic, but the use of oak and the higher alcohol from its good ripening properties results in quite big wines.It is not unheard of to see dry wines over 16 per cent, but I prefer more moderate ones, at around 13.5-14.5 per cent. The higher alcohol ones tend to have raisin notes from hotter terroir, where the grapes get riper than is perhaps appropriate for a balanced table wine.
The selection of Zin at NB Liquor is not huge, but we've seen some excellent specialty wines come in over the last few years.For value, I like the spicy, berry-laden 2005 Gnarly Head from Delicato ($21.99), the quite oaky Delicato Old Vines Zin ($14.99), the nicely balanced Ravenswood ($19.99), Mondavi's Woodbridge ($14.99), and the fairly substantial-for-the-price Rancho Zabaco Dancing Bull ($16.99).
If you want to try the big boys, most of them are in short supply and spread around the province, but you can't go wrong with Kunde, Montevina, St. Francis, and Murphy-Goode, which are all in the $30-35 range. Don't be surprised if there is some alcohol burn with these wines, but you may find this helps warm you up on a chilly day.