This is the time of year when Vermont chef Eric Warnstedt and front-of-house mastermind William McNeil’sHen of Wood (the original one in Waterbury and the more recent outpost in Burlington) really hit their stride. For the past 11 years, the two have been using their menus to exalt the tastiest things Vermont offers. And right now, when the fireplaces are stoked, there’s no better time to sit for dinner.
Last year, the two took their show closer to the slopes and openedDoc Ponds, a beer-centric pub, on the mountain road in Stowe. The après-ski spot has 24 beers on tap and 50 more by the bottle, complete with a fireplace for warming toes.
McNeil advises on the six best wines, from lambrusco to older riesling, to drink when the cold winds begin to blow.
While an Austrian sparkling rosé isn’t the obvious winter choice, it’s one of McNeil’s favorites. Made from cabernet sauvignon in the traditional Champagne method, “it’s closer to a red than a rosé, almost,” says McNeil. “It has great bubbles, but what’s also nice is that it has some tannin to it. The overall body and structure just warms you up.” Austrian sekts (the German name for sparkling wines) are ridiculously underappreciated in the wine world at large, but as McNeil notes, they’re a lot less expensive than Champagne, which means we ought to be drinking more of them.
“If you’re a sour beer drinker, this is my go-to wine for you,” says McNeil of this funky orange wine from California. The wine, made by husband-and-wife team Tracey and Jared Brandt is a blend of five white grapes: vermentino, picpoul, grenache blanc, marsanne and roussanne. They leave a portion of the juice on its skins for an extended period of time, resulting in an orange wine with the tannic structure of a red one.
“Our whole philosophy of the list is going back to all family-run wineries making wine the way it was made in years past, a non-interventionist approach to winemaking,” says McNeil. “The big thing that changes from summer to winter on our wine lists is we tend to lose some rosés and add more orange wine. Orange wine is definitely a big focus for us at all of the restaurants.”
3. 2014 Day Wine Hock & Deuce Syrah/Viognier ($28)
“This is from a new winery that we just started working with recently,” says McNeil. “The winemaker, Brianne Day, is working with fruit from southern Oregon regions, too, so not just the popular Willamette Valley. This one is from a vineyard in the Applegate Valley in the south.”
Here, Day is blending syrah with viognier, a classic move inspired by northern Rhône’s Côte Rôtie region. “What I really like about this that you’ve got the power of the syrah with the piercing acidity that the viognier provides, giving warmth with a backbone,” says McNeil. When it comes to pairing this wine with food, he looks to meat dishes that won’t overwhelm the brightness of the wine, like Hen of the Wood’s hanger steak with a blue cheese crumble. “The acidity of the blue cheese and the acidity of the wine match really well,” he says.
“This one’s made by Michele D’Aprix, who has become a close friend of the restaurant. She spends a fair amount of time up here in Vermont, which is amazing. She’s another exceptional female winemaker, who’s really making a name for herself in Bordeaux,” says McNeil.
She practices organic farming and relies on native yeast to ferment her wines. Because Bordeaux can take a number of years of aging before it’s ready to drink, D’Aprix is actually keeping her wines back for a couple of years before release. The current vintage is 2011. McNeil’s a big fan of Right Bank, a merlot-based Bordeaux. “This is a great example of the Right Bank,” he says. “It’s ready to show you what it’s all about. Most people think when it’s cold out that you want bigger tannins, and this is definitely that kind of wine.”
“This comes from my all-time favorite producer in the Wachau region of Austria,” says McNeil. “Martin Mittelbach is a fourth-generation winemaker, and all he makes is riesling and grüner veltliner, using organic practices in the vineyard and natural fermentation,” says McNeil.
Grown on slate, the wine has a focused minerality that balances the little bit of sweetness in the wine. “It’s not overly sweet,” he says. “When someone wants a drier riesling, it’s a great way to go. Rieslings, to me, just warm your body when you drink them. I just love riesling in the winter. It’s a warm white wine, so to speak.” McNeil prefers these wines with a little bit of age, so he has the 2007 on his menu, noting that the riesling tends to get rounder with time.
“What better than some bubbles with your red wine?” asks McNeil of this lightly sweet lambrusco from a natural wine producer in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. “If you’re sitting by the fire, you want something with a little bit of sweetness, bubbles and a chill to cool you down. You get the best of all worlds within this wine.”
The beauty of this bottle is that it really can go with any part of the meal. “To start, with a plate of charcuterie, this is absolutely amazing. It also works really well with game meats. And then, you can finish a meal with this and a caramel or a truffle at the end of the night,” says McNeil.