Winter Wines

You call it fall but Brian Rosen knows this time of year as red wine season.

“Last night, I’m not ashamed to say, I had two bottles of red wine. If it was two months earlier, it could have just as easily been a Gewurztraiminer or a Riesling,” said the 36-year-old Rosen, who shared the bounty with three others.

Rosen, owner of Sam’s Wines and Spirits, a longtime family business in Chicago and its suburbs, knows wines. He also knows the Midwest weather. Like Rosen, for a lot of us here, the turning leaves signal more than winter is on the way. It means it’s time to switch out the bottles in the wine rack.

Fall is when many quit buying lighter, fruit-flavored Sauvignon Blancs in favor of smooth Pinot Noirs and spicy Zinfandels, much like you might trade an icy lemonade for a warming pumpkin latte. Science can’t explain it but those in the wine business have theories.

“White wines have become synonymous with barbecuing,” Rosen said. “Red wines, on the contrary, are heartier. As the cold gets around the Midwest, a red wine, a fuller wine, gives you that warmth, that internal heat that people kind of look for when winter comes.”

With the first frost, Rosen said, “there is a mental switchover.”

Indeed there is. ACNielsen studies consumer sales among Milwaukee supermarkets. The marketing researcher found that the cooler the weather in Milwaukee, the more consumers spend on red table wine. In 2005, red wine sales rose from 42% of sales of all table wines in August to 45% in September. They peaked at 47% in March and dropped again in April. By June, red wine sales were at 42% again.

Natalie MacLean, who wrote Red, White, and Drunk All Over, says she pulls out her bulky sweaters and beefy red wines about the same time.

“That’s not to say you can’t drink lighter wines in the winter, but if you’re looking for wine and food pairings that work based on weight, taste and strength of flavor, it makes sense to drink something more robust as the temperature dips,” she said.

“Perhaps it’s also because robust wines are more alcoholic, and therefore warm us up faster and longer than lighter, lower-alcohol wines,” MacLean wrote in an e-mail. “It’s like the difference between a fur coat and a shawl; which would you turn to when there’s three feet of snow on the ground?”

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