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The Wines of Spring
By Robert Whitley
Apr 19, 2011
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To every wine, there is a season.

If it is now the middle of April, it must be time for a glass of lightly chilled Beaujolais, or perhaps a slightly tart Picpoul de Pinet. Maybe even a fruity rosado from Navarra, Spain.

What these wines share in common is freshness; that and the fact that they are typically at their best when served young. They are the wines of spring.

The most precarious and short-lived of spring wines is rose. Rose wines – called rosado in Spain, rosato in Italy and rose throughout France and the rest of the world – tend to be delicate, with subtle fruit and spice nuances that fade quickly after spring and summer.

The best rose wines in my experience are made in the south of France, the Rioja and Navarra regions of Spain, and throughout the coastal valleys of the western United States. That’s not to say that credible roses aren’t made in other places, but all else being equal, if you could only choose one or two regions as a resource for good rose, these would make an excellent starting point.

For example, if confronted with several dozen choices at the typical wine emporium, all unknown to the buyer, a bottle of Julian Chivite from Navarra will always make for a happy customer. Australia’s Robert Oatley is another solid performer with its Rose of Sangiovese, while domestically Vina Robles Roseum, Quivira Mourvede Rose, Simi Roseto and Sanford Vin Gris are very nice options.

No doubt the quintessential spring wine is Beaujolais, the light, fruity red wine of Burgundy made from the Gamay grape. Beaujolais is enjoying a renewed embrace by wine enthusiasts the world over thanks to the exceptional quality of the 2009 vintage.

Once seen as the “Kool Aid” of Burgundy, Beaujolais is once again being taken seriously, hopefully for what it is. That would be a delicious, fruity red wine that is low in alcohol, beautiful with food, and easy to quaff because of the absence of strong tannins.

Beaujolais doesn’t age well, and it certainly has a shorter lifespan than its kissing cousin, red Burgundy made from Pinot Noir, but that’s actually its strongest selling point: It tastes best when it is young and fresh; and because it is a short-lived wine it retails for a modest price.

The finest Beaujolais, usually made from one of the village crus, such as Morgon or Fleury, occasionally fetch in the neighborhood of $20 a bottle. But the more ubiquitous Beaujolais Villages, a perfectly acceptable drink, generally falls into the $10-$12 range.

There are dozens if not hundreds of Beaujolais producers, but the easiest to find in the U.S. market are the big negociants Georges Duboeuf, Maison Louis Jadot and Maison Joseph Drouhin.

As the days grow warmer in the summer months, you are encouraged to chill Beaujolais prior to serving; and Beaujolais is so grapey and refreshing that it is often server after dinner in the Burgundy region.

Dolcetto, sometimes called the Beaujolais of Italy, is another beautiful spring red that can be served slightly chilled. As with Beaujolais, Dolcetto is not a wine meant for posterity, and most of it is consumed within a few years of the vintage. It is fruity, though not as fruity as Beaujolais, and low in alcohol and tannin. Dolcetto is typically served with tapas in the Piemont region of northern Italy, or with light pastas cooked with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and perhaps a pinch of garlic.

One of the beauties of Dolcetto and Beaujolais is that both are red wines that can easily be paired with fish or seafood stews.

Other red wines that are versatile in this manner and can be drunk young are Rioja Crianza (often made from a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha) and Barbera. Good producers of Rioja Crianza abound, but I am particularly fond of Montecillo and El Coto. Both are fruity and delicious and generally retail for about $12. My "go-to" Barberas are made by the Italian producers Vietti and Michele Chiarlo, and domestically I usually look for the Eberle Barbera. All three fall into the $20 range.

It should be noted that Barbera, unlike Beaujolais and Dolcetto, can improve with age and cellars quite well under the right conditions.

My favorite spring whites are the crisp and refreshing Albarino of Spain’s Rias Baias district, steely mineral-driven Gruner Veltliner from Austria, and the citrusy Picpoul de Pinet of France’s Languedoc region.

Albarino is grown in the cool coastal zone of northwest Spain and is generally high in acid, but without being taut or lacking in fruit. Some can be a bit on the floral side, but all deliver aromas of lime and lemon, with a generous side of minerality. This wine is especially good with steamed shellfish, particularly clams.

Albarino is usually drunk young and fresh, though I have had a few that held up after more than five years. Good names to look for are Pazo de Senorans (probably the greatest of all Albarino), Vionta and the ubiquitous Martin Codax, which is one of the better co-ops in the area.

Domestically there is very little Albarino to be found, but Tangent makes a good one from grapes grown in the Edna Valley, in California’s Central Coast. Good Albarino can be had for $12-$15, but top wines such as Pazo de Senorans will retail closer to $30.

Gruner Veltliner is a flinty, extremely dry, mineral-driven wine that is all the rage at wine bars. It is quite good as a cocktail on its own, but also complements light tapas, too. Laurenz, Huber and Bauer are just a few of the good names in Austrian Gruner and all retail for $12-$15.

Domestically Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York’s Finger Lakes region and Zocker in California’s Central Coast had had promising recent vintages of Gruner, both retailing for about $20.

Picpoul de Pinet is a slightly tart, lime-centric, high acid white from the Coteaux du Languedoc region in the south of France. Very little comes to the United States, and there is no single brand that has any prominent shelf presence. But it is so inexpensive ($9-$11) that almost any Picpoul you find at the retail level would be worth a shot. In the Languedoc it is typically served with freshly shucked oysters, but I also drink it with steamed shellfish or simply as an aperitif.