It was an ordinary visit to the local market for a few essentials. When I arrived at the checkout counter, however, I realized that during my shop I had been under the influence of a powerful force. Instead of milk and bread, my basket was crammed with shiny new grilling tools. Time now, I thought, to begin stocking up on summer wines.
I have a general rule of thumb when choosing the wines of summer. They must be fresh and lively and somewhat lighter in body than the heavier, richer, more intense wines I favor in cooler weather.
There are exceptions, of course, but by and large I go light through the summer, emphasizing refreshing acidity and fruit over richness and structure. Here are a few examples of wines and wine styles that should play well on those sultry summer nights:
This style of wine has long been popular in Mediterranean countries, where the heat can be suffocating and the air conditioning often doesn't exist or doesn't work. It's not unusual to see a restaurant empty on the inside during the midday meal while the lawn is covered with tables, chairs and umbrellas.
You'll likely spy a bottle of dry Rose on nearly every table. This fondness for dry Rose is beginning to catch on here in the United States, which has inspired more domestic producers to jump on the bandwagon. There's even a 'Rose only' winery, Solo Rosa, located in Sonoma County.
The domestic versions of this style are generally intensely fruity despite being fermented dry, and often more deeply colored than, say, the onion-skin colored Roses of the south of France, such as Domaine Ott. Among my favorites domestically are the two from Iron Horse Vineyards, one made from Pinot Noir and the other from Sangiovese.
Though relatively unknown outside of northwestern Spain until the past 20 years, Albarino is a high-acid white grape that is fast becoming a favorite all over the world with raw and steamed shellfish. So much so that Albarino prices have skyrocketed in recent years, inching ever closer to $30 per bottle.
One of the best of the lesser expensive Albarinos is Burgans, which generally retails in the $10-$12 range. This wine is made at the Martin Codax cooperative (a spiffy facility with very stringent standards) and offers slightly fuller, more rounded textures than more tightly packed, higher acid Albarinos at twice the price.
Domestically Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon is producing a very nice Albarino, and other U.S. wineries are beginning to come online, including York Mountain, whose 2006 Edna Valley Albarino won the Best of Show White Wine trophy at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition over the Memorial Day weekend. This is the wine you hand the grillmeister to keep him/her refreshed while slaving over a smoking barbecue.
This grape is the workhorse of summer wines. Nearly always cool, crisp and refreshing, its popularity has soared since wine folks got over the need to sip Chardonnay to establish their wine cred. It's now cool to drink Sauvignon Blanc, too, and there are plenty of great ones out there, from New Zealand to the Russian River to the Loire Valley. At this time of year I prefer the zingy New Zealand style of Sauvignons as opposed to the more voluptuous Bordeaux style.
You'll see this sometimes in the differences between Sonoma Sauvignons and Napa Sauvignons. Those from Sonoma typically have more of the herbal, grassy, mineral elements associated with New Zealand, while Napa Sauvignons often have more of the stone fruits, tropical fruits and rich viscosity found in white Bordeaux. In the Sonoma/Kiwi style, Kenwood, Dry Creek Vineyard and Rochioli are aces. If you want the real thing from New Zealand, Craggy Range, Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria are good bets.
For our purposes, there are two styles of Riesling that work very well over the summer months - crisp, bone dry Rieslings epitomized by Josmeyer of France's Alsace region and Grossett of Australia's Clare Valley. Then there are the richer, rounder but equally pleasing off-dry Rieslings from such producers as Alsace's Domaines Schlumberger, Washington's Chateau St. Michelle and California's Jekel Vineyards.
The dry Rieslings make refreshing quaffers and pair nicely with grilled fish and vegetables. The off-dry Rieslings are particularly poignant with spicy foods. The domestic dry Rieslings I prefer are made by Stony Hill, Smith-Madrone and Trefethen. I know there are good dry Rieslings being made in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, but I'm not familiar enough with those wines to offer recommendations. But experimentation is a good thing!
I realize many wine enthusiasts who consider themselves connoisseurs turn their noses up at Beaujolais because it's light and fruity and oh-so-not-so-serious. Precisely the reason I love it for summertime sipping. You can even serve it chilled! If you're throwing a backyard party or just grilling burgers and dogs, a simple Beaujolais Villages will do, and these wines are extremely affordable - in the $10-$12 range.
If you're doing something more sophisticated, spend a few extra bucks and step up to cru Beaujolais. A Fleurie or a Morgon or a Moulin-a-Vent. You might be surprised at how complex and satisfying these wines can be. The most dominant Beaujolais in the U.S. market is produced by Georges Duboeuf, but there is excellent Beaujolais available from top Burgundian producers such as Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin. And if you do dip into some heavier reds to pair with those hearty grilled meats, Beaujolais makes an excellent and refreshing aperitif at the end of the meal!