- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

In summertime, wine, like living, should be easy. When the temperature and humidity soar, even the most prestigious wine’s subtleties will get lost in the glass. That’s why simple refreshment rather than nuanced complexity becomes any wine’s principal appeal this time of year.

This means that good summertime wines should be young, fresh and relatively inexpensive. After all, a high price tag on a bottle of wine ought to indicate either complexity or ageability — or both. Yet many wines today satisfy neither criterion and still cost a not-so-fair penny.

The reason, in a word, is location. Some wine regions are so renowned that their names inevitably inflate the price, no matter what sort of wine is in the bottle. Napa Valley chardonnay is a prime example. Many renditions taste fairly simple and start falling apart after just a couple of years in the bottle, but they still sell for upward of $20 or $30.

To be fair, the vintners responsible for these wines are not trying to gouge you. They have to charge high prices because their own costs — particularly the cost of vineyard land — are so high. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to drink their wines. Particularly in summer.

So where should you look for good summer buys? Try places that are less well-known. This often will lead you to the Southern Hemisphere, where land tends to be (relatively) cheap. Vintners there make plenty of costly, high-end wines, but they also excel with less expensive bottlings that frequently outperform comparably priced wines from Europe or North America.

Whether hailing from Argentina or Australia, Chile, New Zealand or South Africa, wines grown below the equator can be excellent summer choices. They have the added advantage of optimal freshness, as harvest comes six months earlier than in northern vineyards.

Of course, particular grapes grow best in particular locations, so you need to be precise when you go shopping. Here, then, are five specific Southern Hemisphere categories to explore this summer, along with recommendations of some specific bottles to get you started.

Malbec from Argentina

Malbec is a red grape that plays a minor role as a blending component in Bordeaux but shines on its own in Argentina, where it yields wines with considerable grip and plenty of ripe fruit flavor. They pair especially well with grilled beef and are good summer choices when you’re grilling steaks on the barbecue.

The top Argentine malbecs will benefit from cellaring, but the entry-level wines are designed to be drunk young. The best tend to come from the province of Mendoza. They taste of red and black berries, with an intriguing streak of black licorice in the finish.

Terrazas “Alto” 2001 ($11) is the best buy I know, as it has excellent depth and length, so it will stand up to a hearty T-bone. Others worth trying include: Alamos 2001 ($11), Bodega Norton 2000 ($9), and Santa Julia Reserva 2000 ($10).

Australian shiraz

Shiraz, nee syrah, is Australia’s pride and joy. Cabernet may produce more elite wines Down Under, but shiraz is a national treasure. Full of exuberant character, it offers rich fruit with jammy, almost syrupy berry flavors.

Expensive, age-worthy shirazes tend to add notes of leather and spice, but young, fresh renditions owe their charm almost entirely to ripe fruit. They taste substantial but at the same time soft and seductive.

This combination of full flavor and rich texture makes these wines good picnic choices, as they pair well with many foods. They’ll overwhelm delicate dishes, but otherwise, they are extremely versatile.

Penfolds “Thomas Hyland” 2000 ($14.50) tastes lusciously rich, as does Hope Estate 2001 ($13.50) and the amusingly named Mad Fish 2001 ($15), but for sheer value, it’s hard to beat Oxford Landing 2001 ($7), a wine with full flavor, an extensive finish and a price tag guaranteed to make you smile.

Merlot from Chile

Chile is without question the world’s best source of value-priced merlot. Winemakers virtually everywhere else flood the market every year with oceans of dull, insipid wine made from this grape, but Chilean vintners make tasty merlots that have plenty of charm. I can’t explain why, but I can recommend that you try the wines.

Good Chilean merlot augments its plum and cherry fruit with a hint of dusty earth, making an otherwise simple wine interesting to sip. Medium-bodied but full-flavored, it’s an ideal match for roast or grilled chicken, as well as many pork dishes.

Cocha y Toro Casillero del Diablo 2001 ($9) is a good buy. Although more expensive, the same company’s Marquese de Casa Concha 2001 ($13.50) is a good buy as well, for it tastes richer and more substantial. Two others well worth trying are Santa Rita Reserva 2001 ($11) and Vina Errazuriz 2001 ($10).

New Zealand Riesling

New Zealand is best known for racy, vibrant sauvignon blanc, a wine (and wine style) that has altered appreciation of this grape variety worldwide, but Kiwi vintners make much more than sauvignon. They excel, as well, with grapes such as pinot gris, pinot noir and Riesling, all of which perform best when grown in a cool climate.

New Zealand Riesling is a great summer wine because it tastes so refreshing. Generally fuller-bodied than most German kabinets, but lighter than good Alsatian renditions, it’s an ideal quaffing wine for before dinner on the deck or patio. Fruity but dry, it’s also quite food-friendly, as it pairs well with a wide variety of light fare, especially poultry and seafood salads.

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2002 ($13) from Marlborough provides an excellent introduction. Full of peach and pear flavors, it tastes delectably crisp and bright. Two others worth trying, also from Marlborough, are Allan Scott 2001 ($14.50) and Grove Mill 2001 ($15).South African sauvignon blanc

Good sauvignon blancs from South Africa tend to be full of zesty verve. They taste almost bracing, so will seem just right with supper on a hot, humid, summer evening.

These are seafood wines, par excellence. They go especially well with cold or room-temperature dishes — shrimp salad, for example, or poached salmon. The best come from the coolest regions near Capetown, and so display plenty of refreshing acidity.

Porcupine Ridge 2002 ($9), marked by bright citrus fruit with an herbal edge, is a great example. Boschendal 2002 ($10) tastes even racier, so it is not for the faint of palate. By contrast, Fleur du Cap 2002 ($9) seems a bit restrained, consequently more elegant. All three, though, offer lots of bang for not many bucks, which is just what you want in summer.

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