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Winter whites: anything but wimpy

It's easy to choose a good winter red wine, a stirring counterpart for an evening in front of a crackling fire.  Choosing a winter white is tough.  You want big, rich and expansive.

Winter. Cold. Big red wines.

If you live north of the 40th parallel — and in many years if you live well below it too — these go together. A good winter red wine will offer richness and depth, a stirring counterpart for an evening in front of a crackling fire.

There's plenty of logic to this belief, and we'll consider some of those big, expansive reds next week. But let's first consider the whites of winter.

Choosing a winter red is easy. Choosing a winter white is tough, so tough that the suggestions I solicited were all over the map. There's a few useful clues, though. 

First, it's worth considering places where rich, fatty winter foods are paired off with white wines, perhaps nowhere more so than Alsace, the corner of France where German tradition reigns strong.

Alsatian food, while sublime, isn't exactly light. Consider the emblematic choucroute garnie, a huge pile of sauerkraut with all manners of pork piled around. Or the flammekueche, a hearty bacon, onion and cheese tart. Foie gras makes a big showing, too.

"The trifecta of Alsace cooking is cabbage, duck fat or goose fat, and bacon," says Alpana Singh, sommelier at Chicago's Everest restaurant, which claims the largest collection of Alsatian wines in the United States, thanks in large part to Alsatian chef J. Joho.

Yet more than 90 percent of Alsatian wines are white: pinot gris, riesling and gewurztraminer key among them.

Rich and roundedAll give us some good clues to what we should be looking for: Somewhat richer wines, with rounded edges and less acid, and a bit more alcohol than otherwise, often above 13 percent. By comparison, German rieslings can often be found under 10 percent alcohol. Sauvignon blanc and even a lot of chardonnay should probably be put on hold until it's warmer. Aromatics are also key. Winter whites should smell less like citrus and more like cinnamon, allspice or honey.

Alsatian wines often have just a hint of sweetness from a bit of residual sugar — which is not to say they're sweet wines. But Singh notes that touch of sugar is a great compliment to winter root vegetables.

Pinot gris, especially, seems to shine with winter dishes — fresh without being crisp. This applies not only to Alsace, where it's often called tokay pinot gris, but to Oregon as well. It was a popular Thanksgiving pick, for essentially the same reasons.

A well-chosen riesling can be terrific, too, though Singh offers a note of caution: It's crucial to find one that has class and elegance. A good riesling should remind you of Grace Kelly, she offers — "and then you have Paris Hilton." Put another way, many American rieslings can be too clunky or sweet. (But often just right for a sunny summer day.)

Rajat Parr, wine director for San Francisco's Mina Group restaurants, passes on most Alsatian choices, but similarly seeks out big, rounded whites — mostly from Rhone grapes like viognier, marsanne and rousanne.

"People want to drink oilier wines," Parr says, "Something that would warm you up."

On the French side, Parr suggests wines like a 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape white, or a northern Rhone white from a producer like Alain Graillot, who works with the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage appellations. 

From this country, he points to a marsanne/rousanne blend from Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast, as well as Tablas Creek's Esprit de Beaucastel white. Rhone-style whites can be found from wineries throughout the Central Coast and southern California: Qupe, Tablas Creek, Cold Heaven, Beckmen.

'Nothing refreshing'Parr and Singh both suggested a wine I mentioned at Thanksgiving: Au Bon Climat's Hildegard, made by Jim Clendenen. So I called Clendenen to ask his thoughts on winter whites.  (His wife Morgan makes Cold Heaven viognier.)

He described his efforts with Hildegard — "my project of the decade" — which recreates a truly old-style white Burgundy's Corton vineyard. While Burgundy white now means chardonnay, the original mix was pinot gris, pinot blanc and a touch of aligote.

All those grapes suggest lightness, but Hildegard is a powerhouse: huge, lush and meaty, yet with enough minerality to keep it from going overboard. It gets about 18 months in oak barrels, which helps provide that ample stature — and what Clendenen sees as a key to a proper winter white: the ability to age it for 10 years or more.

Key to the blend is a balance between the fat of the pinot gris and a bit of sharpness from the aligote. Clendenen sees similar potential in Bordeaux whites, which get their fat from semillon grapes and acid from sauvignon blanc.

Clendenen had another point, which brings us back to the fireside: Don't drink these wines too cold. The richness gets masked and even a wine as big as Hildegard can be mistaken for refreshing. ("There's nothing refreshing about that wine at all," he says.)

So when you open your winter white, let it sit on the counter for a bit and warm up. Better yet, bring it with you when you plunk down in front of the fire.

"I think a lot of people just put white wine aside in the winter," Clendenen sums up. Which is a shame: There's lots of options (we haven't even discussed tocai Friuliano) and winter foods — casseroles, fondue, cream sauces — can sure benefit from a luscious white wine.

If you're sticking to your red wine ways, we'll consider those next week.