It is July, and I'm inside the notorious Washington, D.C. Beltway, which means that at least two things are happening: Lots of wine is being consumed, and lots of wine is being mishandled and consumed in error, on account of the torrid, steamy heat.
Almost every year, Washington leads all cities in the United States in wine sales and consumption per capita. A very lively bar and restaurant scene is coupled with relentless lobbying and countless association meetings and diplomatic receptions. D.C. is awash in wine, and constantly so, regardless of the season.
Among its four seasons, D.C.'s summers are by far the most famous--or infamous. The average high temperature in July is 88 degrees, which means that nearly half of the days get above 90. The low-lying situation along the Potomac makes for swampy humidity, and when the heat and humidity get their act together, we get blasted with violent thunderstorms that cool things only momentarily before increasing the humidity and the general sense that we live in a steaming soup cauldron.
You get the picture. Do these climatic conditions affect wine? Absolutely, and in more ways than many consumers realize. Last month, my WRO colleague Tina Caputo did a nice job of detailing the perils of heat upon wine that is stored in one's home. However, heat can have a major impact on wine before you ever get it back to your dwelling, and experience also shows that one should keep the heat in mind when selecting and serving wines under hot conditions.
So, here are my top 10 tips for getting wine right in the heat, which will almost surely hit you wherever you live during the next couple of months:
Lots of wine is compromised by heat before it ever gets purchased by consumers. This happens at every point in the distribution process. Plenty of restaurants and retail stores have less-than-optimal storage conditions, and the same is true for local distributors and some importers. Wine that gets transported in un-refrigerated containers can get cooked along the way, and even wine that was conscientiously shipped can be harmed by being left for a couple of hours on a hot loading dock.
In many cases, heat damage can't be detected by visual inspection. However, sometimes it does show itself, and you'd be wise to get into the habit of looking at every bottle you buy--year round (since a wine you buy in January may well have been cooked during the preceding July). Sticky seepage around the capsule is the prime sign of trouble. In most instances, this results from the bottle getting hot. The liquid expands much more than the glass when exposed to heat, and at a sufficiently high temperature, will be forced past the cork.
This puts a double whammy on the wine: The blast of heat will degrade it, and then, when the wine cools and contracts, it will suck oxygen past the cork to fill the vacuum. This will oxidize the wine, darkening its color, muting its fruit, and shortening its lifespan. So, whenever you see any signs of seepage at the top of a bottle, or any stickiness around the capsule, or a cork that seems a bit pushed up--just say no. Never buy such a bottle. Even in restaurants, when a server shows you the label to confirm your selection, get a look at the capsule. If it shows seepage, order another wine--not just another bottle of the same.
When you step into a wine shop, take a quick look at where the shelving is arrayed relative to the windows. If any shelves are near enough to windows (especially windows facing south or west) for wines to be hit with direct sunlight, you are not dealing with the world's most careful retailer, and you should consider heading elsewhere.
Also, many retailers use shelves that show one bottle at the top of a rack, with others lined up vertically below. Since heat rises and the coolest air in a store is near the floor, take the bottom bottle as a matter of course.
This is one of those questions to which there are many right answers but--at least arguably--no answers that are just flat wrong. There's no doubt in my mind that certain types of wines taste much better than others in hot weather. Lighter ones prove more refreshing and appropriate than heavier ones. Ones made from modestly ripened grapes that retain higher acidity levels do better than those made from very ripe grapes, as these will tend to be heavy and sweet-seeming after all that sugar is fermented into alcohol. Wines made without oak or just a light touch of it will tend to be more pleasing than overtly toasty, woody ones. And younger wines almost always outperform older ones of comparable quality.
A few examples will illustrate these principles. Although Pinot Gris from Alsace is usually a more complex and interesting wine than a Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, the Grigio will usually please more palates than the Gris on a 100-degree day. And there's no doubt about why this will be true: The Grigio will be lighter, more acidic, and less sweet, and hence will prove more refreshing. Likewise, an unoaked Chardonnay will outperform a barrel-fermented one in terms of refreshment value. It will be less dramatic and complex, but refreshment value trumps complexity on a really hot day. Finally, if you compare two identical wines sourced from different vintages (even vintages as little as one year apart), the younger wine will be preferable--whether white or red.
Returning to my initial point, the fact that some choices are better than others doesn't quite imply that certain choices must be wrong. I think that Sauvignon Blanc is better than Semillon on a really hot day, but that doesn't mean that Semillon couldn't be a good choice. If you are grilling swordfish steaks and eating in an air-conditioned environment, the Semillon will do really well. Likewise, if you are grilling steaks and love Napa Cabernets, I'd try to talk you into pouring a high-quality Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany instead, but I'll gladly share your Cabernet as long as you're buying.
Once you have selected some wines and step out of the retail store and onto the sizzling pavement, you need to remember a couple of things when transporting the wine in your vehicle. If you'll be driving straight to your dwelling, and have enough brains to turn on the air conditioning during the drive, the wine will be significantly cooler in the passenger compartment than in the trunk. However, if you'll be making stops along the way, the greenhouse effect of the windowed interior will make it get much hotter in the sun than the trunk or, as the Brits call it, 'the boot.' If you wouldn't park your closed car on a baking slab of asphalt and run a 15-minute errand while leaving Fifi the poodle to broil on the front seat, then don't sauté your Sauvignon in there either.
If you've got to stick your wine in the boot while running some errands, you should take a second to be sure that the wine is standing up. Better to have the air space against the cork rather than the wine itself. As the wine warms, you'd be better off compressing the air bubble or even forcing a little of it past the cork than having the liquid pushed out at the point of least resistance--the cork. Although wines with cork closures should be stored on their sides, they're best transported in heads-up position.
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, it makes sense to make the wine shop the last errand of your shopping day. Yes, this could have been tacked onto the preceding point, but nobody writes 'top nine' lists.
Midwesterners may be appalled by this, but if it is really stinking hot outside, don't eat dinner at 6 p.m. Don't get your nose out of joint if you are a Midwesterner; I'm originally from Illinois. However, having been around the block a few times, I've learned that the Spanish know what they're doing when waiting for the heat of the day to subside before sitting down to dinner. You may not be willing to wait until 11 p.m. as is the custom in much of Spain, but pushing your dinner deeper into the evening really does make it more enjoyable when the weather is hot. And it will give you more room to maneuver when choosing wines to serve.
If you are impatient by nature, mollify yourself with an aperitif or two while waiting. And if you need to get up early, schedule a nap for the weekend. Of course, everyone needs to do what works for their lifestyle in terms of timing, but in all seriousness, eating later in the summer is pretty convincing in practice, and you should give it a try. I've gradually come to the point where I don't want my dinner until 10:00, and the practice of eating before sundown has come to seem quasi-barbaric.
Is a meal involving nothing but white wines imbalanced? In a word, no. We are in the midst of a red wine boom in the United States, and like all booms, this one involves a certain amount of irrationality. One now hears of people who only drink red wine, or who disparage white wines categorically, or who somehow think that white wines are for girls and weenies, and so forth.
But this is nonsense. In my opinion and experience, red wines are simply inferior to white wines as cocktails and in the initial phases of a meal, and can run right through a meal without leaving (almost) anyone unsatisfied. And, of course, it is an important advantage for whites under hot conditions that they can be thoroughly chilled. Consider making them the core of any occasion, though the insistent Red Heads among you can throw in a red with cheese toward the end of the meal after refreshing your guests with a chilled sparkler and some cold whites and rosés.
Although I bristle at the suggestion that white wines are, per se, inferior to reds, I certainly love reds and am not prepared to do without them for long when the weather gets hot. By selecting wisely and preparing reds effectively (more on this below), they can be quite successful. This means picking reds that are on the light side in alcohol and tannin. You can accomplish this by considering both the region of origin and the grape.
For regions, look to places that have what you would want when you are suffering in the heat: A cool climate. Cooler regions ripen grapes less thoroughly, resulting in lower alcohol levels in finished wines as well as higher natural acidity. Generally speaking, head north in the northern hemisphere (or south in the southern hemisphere) to find this effect. For example, within France, look to reds sourced from northerly appellations like Chinon and Bourgueil. Beaujolais and Burgundy are also excellent choices. Within Italy, northern appellations again work better than southern ones, with Barbera and Dolcetto from Piedmont being particularly successful. Sangiovese-based wines from Tuscany and reds from the Veneto are also excellent choices. Within Spain, head north for younger wines from Rioja, as well as Mencia-based wines from Bierzo.
Naturally you know to chill white wines thoroughly when the mercury rises outside, but likewise, preparing reds effectively for service in hot weather means giving them a light chill. Yes, we all grew up hearing that reds should be served at room temperature, but that rule of thumb was probably hatched by some guy in the 19th century who lived in an English manor house without central heat. Serving reds at temperatures in the mid- to low-60s makes sense year round, but it is absolutely essential in summer. If you serve reds above 72 degrees, their alcohol can seem overly prominent, and they will lose freshness and definition.
Conversely, a cooler serving temperature will not only make them more refreshing and less soupy in general terms, but will bring up the acidity in prominence and enhance their overall coherence. I throw almost every red that I taste during the summer months into the refrigerator for 20 minutes to half an hour, and it makes the wines perform much better. If you are throwing a dinner party large enough to justify opening two bottles of the same wine, try chilling one bottle while leaving the other at room temperature. You'll find the difference so striking that you'll develop a new--and very beneficial--habit.
Chilling is good advice for oneself, in temperamental terms, as well as a good way to treat red wines in the summer, so let's call it quits with the principles and rules. I find that my comfort level in hot weather is directly related to my stress level, and though I hope I've provided a helpful tip or two, I don't want to make things seem overly regimented. If the weather is hot but you are in the mood for a big old Bordeaux, just splurge a little on the air conditioning to protect the wine on which you are splurging. Summer poses some challenges for those of us who love wine, but it should still be the most relaxed season of the year, and wine should always remain an aid to relaxation rather than a source of stress. So, from here inside the sweltering Beltway, cheers!