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Comfort is found not necessarily in a particular style of wine, but in what those wines connote, whether they are reminiscent of particular people or somehow represent relief from stress.

Finding comfort in a bottle of familiar wine

03/04/2020 - 05:50

LIKE so many others, my wife and I have been self-isolating in our apartment, doing our best to stay close to our loved ones from afar, and cooking the foods that we find most comforting: split-pea soup, various bean dishes, spaghetti and meatballs, just for starters.

The other night, with the soup, I opened one of my favourite wines from the Northern Rhône Valley, Domaine de Pergaud St Julien-en-St Alban Vieille Sérine from Éric Texier.

It's a mouthful of a name for a Côtes-du-Rhône that, unusually, is made entirely from syrah, or more accurately, sérine, a form of syrah that is often said to be the precursor of modern syrah clones.

This was a 2011, and, like many Texier wines that evolve for years, it was just rounding into form. It was savoury, both salty and peppery, without the overt olive notes of an easier-going syrah, but more complicated, floral and meaty and, for me, an utter joy to drink, intriguing yet comforting.

It's not just this particular wine that makes me feel that way, but many syrahs from the Northern Rhône.

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They are rarely exalted bottles from Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie. Usually they are more accessible wines from St-Joseph, Cornas or Crozes-Hermitage, and even the rare Côtes-du-Rhône that, like the Texier, is from the north and made of syrah rather than the typical grenache-based example from the Southern Rhône.

In moments of anxiety or need, I am often drawn to syrah. Not always from the Northern Rhône, either. I've had wonderful, satisfying examples from California, Washington, Australia and South Africa. And somehow, when I find a good one, I'm happy, the way split-pea soup makes me happy, or memories of my mother's flanken, which I have not sullied by trying to make myself.

We take for granted the ability of food to affect us emotionally. Often that sense of comfort is felt through nerves and sinews tied directly to childhood. Wine generally works on another level, liberating knots of feelings derived from more adult experiences.

Ask some people and they will tell you that any wine is comforting, any alcoholic beverage, in fact. That's the glib response. A full belly is undeniably comforting, but what we prefer to fill it with is highly individual.

So I talked to other people in the wine and food world to see whether they were turning to particular bottles in these strange, nervous times, and why.

I learned that comfort is found not necessarily in a particular style of wine, as with my syrahs, but in what those wines connote, whether they are reminiscent of particular people or somehow represent relief from stress.

Stephen Satterfield, a founder of Whetstone, a periodical on global food culture, said he's drinking a lot of bubbles to keep his spirits up in Atlanta.

"Having a bottle of chilled bubbly in the fridge is its own kind of tonic, and as a result I'm somewhat comforted each time the fridge opens," he said. "I've also been drinking white wine spritzers and vermouth-and-lime cocktails, at a 50-50 booze-to-lime ratio. And light, chilled reds too." He especially recommended cavas from Avinyó and Biutiful.

In Vermont, Deirdre Heekin, who with her husband, Caleb Barber, produces the wonderful La Garagista wines, said they were spending time "in an isolation cell of three households", sharing work and meals and including their assistant winemaker, Camila Carrillo, and their neighbours, Edie Crocker, and her daughters, Willa and Claudia Deeley.

"Camila and I agreed that we are drawn to two things right now: bubbles and chardonnay, sometimes they are one and the same," Heekin said by email. "Bubbles because they are hopeful, cheerful, celebratory so therefore tricking us into a moment of laughter and joy, of interconnectedness." She described the chardonnays she was enjoying as "ample but shot through with minerality, that old friend you call up to meet for drinks or dinner."

Among the chardonnays, she mentioned those from Lioco and Failla in Sonoma, Domaine Guillot-Broux in the Mâconnais, and in the Jura, François Rousset-Martin, an unusual, oxidative chardonnay and a particular favourite of Willa Deeley's.

"It's comforting in that it evokes wine discussion and gets us to talk about something other than corona at the dinner table," Deeley said.

My friend Eric Ambel, a guitarist and producer in Brooklyn, said he was looking for "good old drinkability". He mentioned two reds, both excellent values, that he gets from his local wine shop: Domaine des 2 Ânes Corbières L'Enclos, a biodynamic blend from Languedoc, and Aurora Barbera from Cantine Volpi, a fresh, organic red from the Piedmont region of Italy.

Jancis Robinson, the editor or co-author of essential works like The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and Wine Grapes, finds refuge in port. "The sweetness is utterly comforting, the alcohol ditto," she said.

Some find their current life experiences to be shaping their desires. Kelli White, a sommelier and wine writer, and her husband, Scott Brenner, a sommelier and winemaker, moved to Portland, Oregon, from Napa Valley a few years ago, and now are just about to move back to Napa, where White is taking a new job.

Their period of social distancing has mostly been spent packing, including their wine collection.

"We've been selecting wines based more on emotional resonance than on any particular flavour profile," she said. "For example, a 2009 Domaine Mercouri Estate Red that commemorates our first trip to Greece, and a 1985 Togni Cabernet Sauvignon that is one of our favourite wines from our time in Napa. In short, we're opening the good stuff."

Levi Dalton, host of the I'll Drink to That podcast, also has been drawn to producers he knows and cares about, particularly family wineries. Partly, he says, that's because he feels having one's name on the label is an incentive to make better wines, but he has a deeper reason.

"More fundamentally, as a parent trying to make it in a world that isn't always so family friendly, I want to support other families when I drink a glass of wine," he said. "Then I know the dollars that I am spending are going to feed and clothe children who may well be the next generation of vignerons at that winery."

As an example, he cited Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery, a California producer. Recently, he said, his wife roasted a chicken and they opened a bottle of Dirty & Rowdy's Maple's Spring Street Petite Sirah, a wine named after the daughter of Hardy Wallace, one of the proprietors.

Dalton has an intimate connection to the winery. He's helped out with several harvests there, he knows the family and has stayed in their home. He and his wife loved the wine with their dinner.

"Afterwards, my son, who is too young to drink, asked if he could smell the glasses," Dalton said. "He wanted to know what mom and dad were so happy about. We let him experience the smell, but the wine itself was only half of what we were enjoying. The other part was personal, about the human connection." Even so, it may be that a childhood bond was formed with a wine. One day, in a different crisis, another man may find great comfort in a petite syrah. NYTIMES