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January 5, 2012

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Wonderful wintertime wines

WHAT makes a good winter wine? Fruit, weight and tannins are all admirable qualities for a winter wine. A little bit of spice doesn't hurt either. Pairing well with the foods we associate with the season is also a positive discriminator. Forget about the fresh light wines that go so well with summer fare, the biting chill of the cold Shanghai winter air makes hearty soups, stews and especially meat roasts much more appealing. In fact, I can think of no better combination than a suitable winter red wine with prime rib. This weighty meat dish served with classic root vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and a robust winter red wine is a great way to fortify you against the cold.

Prime rib

There several establishments in Shanghai where you can find a good prime rib meal. Many are American restaurants but the real history of prime rib dates back to England. For centuries the English love of beef has been legendary, even causing the French to refer to them as "rosbifs" or roast beefs in English. The royal body guards properly referred to as Yeoman of the Guard have been affectionately called the beefeaters since the 15th century. No one is quite sure when the English love of roast beef started but 12th century documents from the City of London Archives makes mention of large quarters of beef roasted in neighborhoods each Sunday. The English practice of roasting beef almost certainly predates these 12th century documents.

By the 17th century the practice of Sunday roasts was well established throughout Great Britain. In 1698, the Frenchman Henri Misson observed, "It is a common practice in England, even among people of good substance, to have a huge piece of roast beef on Sundays of which they stuff themselves until they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold the following week."

This very English practice of Sunday roasts was brought to North American and by the 18th century was beginning to also become a tradition in the United States, especially in New England during the wintertime. Growing up in Connecticut, I fondly recall the weekly Sunday roast, a time when family would gather and dine on a remarkably big piece of meat that was quite often prime rib.

Roast beef can be from any cut of the cow while prime rib is from the center rib section of the cow. There are 12 ribs in total but only eight of the larger ribs are used for the finest cuts. Despite the name, most of the so-called prime ribs are in fact not USDA prime meat. Instead they refer to the cut and are very often USDA Choice, which is still a quality meat.

And please don't confuse prime rib with steaks, the meat of a rib eye steak may come from the same place but it's sliced first and then cooked quickly whereas a proper prime rib is cooked slowly. After hours of slow roasting, a prime rib offers one of the world's quintessential meat eating experiences, however, as good as this beast may be, it needs a proper wine companion to be complete.

What style wine?

What makes a great prime rib? Lots of juicy red meat and a good dose of fat is a good place to start. Red meat and fat are also innately friendly to a good red wine. The tannins of a good red wine help break down the meat and fat thereby facilitating digestion while also cleansing the palate and beautifully distinguishing the natural savory flavors of the meat. This age-old way to make meats taste better works especially well with Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Of all red wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon has some of the most structured tannins. Drunk alone the tannins may sometimes be a bit overwhelming but when enjoyed with a good cut of red meat like prime rib the tannins joyfully merge with the flavors and textures of the meat, losing any aggressive or unpleasant qualities. Now kindly allow me the tasty pleasure of introducing three Cabernet Sauvignon wines you can find here in Shanghai that are perfect companions to a prime rib feast.

Budget suggestion

Good beef is not cheap in China so if you spent most your money on the prime rib then a good, reasonably priced Cabernet Sauvignon is the best solution. The Chilean Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the quality region of Maipo is aged eight months in American oak giving it a pleasant light oakiness that's nice with you meat. The wine is also full of raspberry, cherry and plum scents and flavors with a palate-coating light tannic finish. For under 200 yuan (US$32), it's a lovely choice to accompany your roast.

Something more

If you still have some money left over after purchasing the prime rib, then an excellent wine choice is the Torres Mas La Plana from Penedes Spain. Over the past few decades this red has been one of the most consistently good premium wines that is still quite reasonably priced. The wine features a deep purple-red color, lively nose of cassis and exotic spices and bountiful blackberry flavors with hints of coffee and a pleasingly long finish. The dark fruit and tannin balance in this wine make it a natural friend to a hefty slab of prime rib.


There are times in life when only the best will do.

If your prime rib is actually USDA prime meat and you are sharing it with friends who truly appreciate the best of epicurean encounters, then I suggest the Napa classic Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is one of the very top wines from Napa Valley made with the best selection of grapes from the renowned Fay and SLV vineyards. This dark ruby red-black wine features powerful aromas of cassis, violets and spices and multi-layered flavors of blackberries, dark chocolate with cedar notes, palate-coating supple tannins and a long complex finish. If your juicy prime rib is already delicious, then this wine is sure to make it even better, much better!


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