As much as I enjoy drinking lively, refreshing whites and rosés during the summer, I cannot go through an entire season without my 'fix' of red wines. But I have discovered over the years that only certain kinds of red wines are satisfying in warm weather -- at least in my neck of the woods, the humid East Coast of the U.S.
For warm-weather drinking, I rule out most of the 'important' reds, such as classified Bordeaux, Barolos, Barbarescos, California Cabernets, Grand and Premier Cru Burgundies, and so forth. These wines are just too weighty and/or too rich. Any red wine with high alcohol -- such as Amarone and many red Zinfandels -- is out of the question. The high alcohol makes them taste too hot. (Of course, nowadays, so many wines have high alcohol; I'll draw the line today at 14.5 percent. Higher than that is definitely too high!)
The red wines that seem to work best for me in warm weather have fresh fruit flavors, rather than flavors of cooked or baked fruit. They are invariably young, and are light to medium-bodied. The lower the alcohol, the better. Anywhere between 12 percent and 13.5 percent is ideal. They should be vibrant, with good acidity, so that I can enjoy them with fish and seafood as well as chicken; I don't eat much red meat in the summer.
Beaujolais is a great summer red. It is one red wine that always tastes better slightly chilled, which works out well in warm weather. It's versatile enough to go with all kinds of food, including outdoor grilled burgers and chicken. The least expensive Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages are perfect for summer drinking; no need to go for a more serious cru Beaujolais, especially a Moulin-à-Vent, which can be just too powerful and tannic for warm weather drinking.
Another one of my favorite summer red wines is Italian Barbera, from Piedmont. I would avoid the more expensive, barrique-aged Barberas; they don't work as well as the simpler, fresh, lively, unoaked Barberas (in the $11 to $19 price range). Two other excellent Piedmontese summer reds are Grignolino d'Asti and Freisa -- the latter either Freisa d'Asti or Langhe Freisa. Both Grignolino and Freisa are light, lively, and fresh, just what you want for warm weather.
From the Veneto region of Italy, specifically around Verona, come two fine summer reds, Bardolino and Valpolicella. Of the two, Bardolino works even better in warm weather; it is lighter-bodied, and drinks well when it's chilled. Always buy the youngest Bardolino you can find. Avoid the big, expensive (tannic) Valpolicellas during summer; young, simple Valpolicellas are ideal summer reds.
Greece produces an outstanding warm-weather red, Agiorghitiko (fortunately, sometimes known as 'St. George'). Again, look for the lighter-bodied, inexpensive (under $20 retail) versions, which will be fresh and lively, but not a bit wimpy.
Light to medium-bodied reds based on Cabernet Franc come from France's Loire Valley: Chinon, Bourgueil, St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. They're all a bit spicy, lively, go well with many foods, and are reasonably priced. And they all can be lightly chilled.
I've saved my final group of summertime reds for last because they're the most complicated: Pinot Noirs. Some Pinot Noirs are great warm-weather wines; others just don't work. The simpler, inexpensive red Burgundies, such as Bourgogne Rouge and even village Burgundies such as Volnay and Beaune AC wines are fine for summer drinking -- especially in light vintages such as 2004. Pinots from the New World are another story.
I tasted through quite a number of New World Pinot Noirs for this column, and only three qualified for my summertime reds. These are my general guidelines for choosing Pinot Noirs or Burgundies for summertime drinking:
- Lighter-bodied Pinot Noirs seem to work best
- Avoid dark-colored, high-alcohol Pinot Noirs
- Simple Pinot Noirs often go better than expensive Pinots
- Avoid rich, concentrated, or intensely fruity Pinot Noirs
The following are some red wines that I tasted for summer drinking:
Georges Duboeuf, Juliénas (Beaujolais, Italy) Château des Capitans 2006 ($15, W.J. Deutsch): The Beaujolais from the Juliénas cru has always been one of my favorites for its consistency, balance and concentration. Duboeuf's '06 single-vineyard Juliénas, Château des Capitans, is just super: lots of flavor, medium-bodied, medium tannins, and even better the second day! An all-season wine. 90
Cantina Bolzano, Rosso (Alto Adige, Italy) 2005 ($13, Summa Vitis): Alto Adige, the northernmost part of Italy, produces wonderful, light-bodied, lively reds such as this Rosso, a blend of two local grapes, Lagrein and Schiava. The '05 has fresh berry flavors, lots of acidity, and enough tannins to complement hearty pastas. 89
Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) 'Le Orme' 2004 ($10-$11, Kobrand): Michele Chiarlo's standard Barbera d'Asti, the Le Orme, is my quintessential summer red: it's light, fresh and lively, goes with most summer foods, and is a good value as well. The '04 has surprising depth for a wine of this price, great acidity, and is easy to drink. 89
Marchesi di Gresy, Barbera d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) 2005 ($16, Dalla Terra Imports): The great Barbaresco producer Marchesi di Gresy also happens to be making one of the finer, lighter-styled Barberas in the Piedmont region. His '05 -- fresh, lively, and lean, but with excellent concentration -- is my idea of a great warm-weather red wine. It will go with most foods, but would be especially delicious with pizza. 90
Borgogno, Freisa d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) 2005 ($13, Michael Skurnik): Borgogno is a venerable Piedmontese producer most known for its Barolos but who also makes an extensive line of other red varietal wines. I love this '05 Freisa d'Asti; it's brimming with tart, fresh strawberry aromas and flavors. A very refreshing red wine on a warm summer day. 90
Borgogno, Grignolino d'Asti (Piedmont, Italy) 2005 ($12, Michael Skurnik): Borgogno's '05 Grignolino surprises you. Its very light red color (almost like a dark rosé) suggests lightness, but this is a substantial wine, very dry, with high acidity, great depth, and long length on the palate. The ideal red with Italian seafood dishes. Perhaps too acidic for some palates, but not for an acid freak like me. 90
Orogeny, Pinot Noir (Green Valley, Sonoma) 2005 ($32): Part of the Chalone Wine group, Orogeny Vineyards is making my kind of Pinot Noir from Green Valley, the coolest sub-region of Russian River Valley. The '05 has fresh, lively black cherry aromas; its flavors suggest red fruits. It is dry, has medium concentration, excellent balance, and a long, delicious finish on the palate. It handles its 14.2 percent alcohol quite nicely. 91
Foley Estates, Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara) 2005 ($30, Kobrand): Foley Estates is located in the Santa Rita Hills, a particularly cool part of the Santa Ynez Valley. The '05 Foley Pinot Noir, like most Pinots from this region, has intense strawberry aromas and flavors. Its freshness and high acidity qualifies it as a fine summertime red. Decent concentration and lots of depth. 90
Ponzi Vineyards, Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon) 'Tavola' ($25, Wilson-Daniels): I've long been a fan of Ponzi Vineyards' Pinot Noirs, but until this estimable winery introduced its Tavola (Italian for 'table'), I never would have considered a Ponzi Pinot Noir to be a summertime red. Ponzi's standard and Reserve Pinot Noirs are powerful reds, more suitable for cool evenings; but the '05 Tavola is light and supple enough to enjoy in warm weather, with light foods. It has aromas and flavors of red and black fruits, good acidity, fine concentration, and medium tannins. And, by the way, it has a screwcap! 91