If your menus have the late winter doldrums, wine can give them a fun and easy pick-me-up -- after all, wine didn't get to be one of the planet's longest-enjoyed beverages by being boring and difficult.
A well-chosen wine, a few new ingredients and a name change will transform your everyday recipes into an international culinary adventure.
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Ross' choiceVina Zaco
Ÿ Suggested retail and availability: About $13.99 at Mariano's Fresh Market (distributed by Southern Wine and Spirits, Bolingbrook)
The historic Bodegas Bilbainas' classically aged Reserva and Gran Reserva have a worldwide reputation for elegance and complexity. With Vina Zaco, Bilbainas breaks with tradition, bypassing extended barrel aging in favor of youthful, fresh berry flavor, laced with licorice, spice and delicate toasty complexity. Serve this supple and exuberant expression of modern Rioja as a rich red cocktail and complement to meat and poultry, rich grilled vegetables and cheeses.
To start, pop a bottle of chilled Cava and your standard appetizers morph into Spanish tapas.
Tapas are one-bite noshes. For a simple tapas assortment, fill little bowls with cured olives, cheese (look for Spanish Manchego or Idiazabal) and almonds. Deviled eggs become huevos rellenos with the addition of jamon (Spanish ham), tuna, anchovies or mayonnaise sauce. With a slice of tomato, garlic bread becomes pa amb tomaquet.
More involved tapas (or pinxtos -- Basque-style tapas) include datiles con beicon (dates with bacon) and mejillones a la marinera (mussels baked in "seaman's" sauce, akin to Italian marinara.) Head to tapasbonitas.com if you want more tapas recipes.
Cava is Spain's fine sparkler, introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s and still one of the wine world's best values with prices ranging from $7.99 (Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, with bright, apple-y flavor) to about $18 (Paul Cheneau Blanc de Blancs, Reserva Brut, easy but elegant, with yellow apple and mineral complexity, hints of toast and firm acidity.)
If you prefer sweeter flavors, ask for extra dry Cava instead of brut.
As you polish off the last tapas, serve up dinner from your slow-cooker, but instead of chili, chowder or chicken gumbo, try a Spanish estofados (stew.) There's lentejas (lentils with chorizo), estofado de tenera (beef stew), pollo a la riojana (Rioja-style chicken stew), chilindron (red peppers) and many more, with recipes online or in "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" by Penelope Casas. Serve with crusty barra de pan (Spain's baguette.)
Spain's red wine (tinto) is the classic stew companion. Tinto is user-friendly, produced to complement many occasions, even -- in some regions -- to pair with pre-church coffee and rolls. Tinto's uniquely plush and spicy character stems from Spain's unique grapes, including Tempranillo and Monastrell.
Castano Monastrell (from the Yecla region) offers a mouthful of black fruit, chocolate and spice with rustic texture (less than $10.) For enticing ripe berry flavor, brown spice accents and a snug robe of tannin try Luis Canas "Crianza" from Rioja Alavesa (about $16).
At $21.99 you'll find Vina Mayor "Reserva" (from Ribera del Duero): Tempranillo, reserved for maturation in barrel and bottle, with layered complexity of blackberry, dried mountain herb and flowers and Asian spice flavors, along with an elegant finish.
Like estafados, your postre (dessert) can be made in advance, with a little tinto from your wine bottle into the sautee pan for peras al vino (pears poached in red wine.) If the weather outside is frightful, serve warm with blue cheese (like Spain's Cabrales), crusty bread and the last of your tinto.
Or, serve with cinnamon ice cream and Extra Dry Cava and dream of spring that's sure to come.
• Contact Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.