- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Come summer, most people prefer lithe and lively wines. The best hot-weather wines, regardless of their color, display exuberance rather than power and verve instead of muscle. They can refresh your spirit as well as your palate and prove the old song wrong: There, in fact, is a cure for the summertime blues.

Enjoying wine always involves appreciating context — the company of friends and family, the specific dishes at a meal or, in this case, the time of year. Wine isn’t like Coca-Cola; it doesn’t always taste the same.

The very attributes that prove appealing in wines during other seasons can seem off-putting in the East Coast’s summer heat and humidity. Subtlety and nuance? Who can tell when the thermometer hits 90? Depth and weight? No one wants to drink something heavy when the air itself seems ponderous. Firm tannins in reds and rich oak in whites? In summer, sipping wines with these characteristics can seem like imbibing sawdust.

Happily, with more than 50,000 wines offered for sale in the United States, there are plenty of good choices for every season. Happily, too, summer wines, being relatively light and uncomplicated, tend to be reasonably priced. They’re just as easy on your wallet as on your taste buds.

With white wines, the best summer choices tend to be those that display little if any wood influence. Regardless of the grape variety, they taste primarily of fruit.

Chenin blanc, a grape that yields wines tasting of fresh pears and apples, can make delicious summer sippers. Many chenins taste overtly sweet, but plenty of others are dry. Even they, though, will display a seductive fruity bouquet.

The appellation of Vouvray in France’s Loire Valley is home to some of the finest wines made from chenin blanc. Pichot’s 2004 Le Peu de la Moriette ($12) tastes dynamic. It offers a hint of sweetness but has plenty of refreshing acidity, so it is very food-friendly. Similarly styled, Domaine Olivier Careme 2004 tastes something like a fresh summer fruit bowl.

South Africa also is home to some excellent chenin blancs. Look for 2004s or, even better, 2005s (these wines do not age especially well) from Ken Forrester and Mulderbosch, both of which cost about $15. Though California is not known for excelling with this particular grape, Bogle makes a surprisingly good one. The vivacious 2005 rendition costs $12.

If you’re looking for a drier white but one that is still packed with fresh fruit flavor, try sauvignon blanc fashioned in an herbal, citrus-scented style. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume from France exemplify as much, but the best renditions are almost too delicate for summer sipping. Because their mineral-tinged nuances can get obscured by heat, save them for spring and fall. This time of year, look instead to New Zealand — where good sauvignons taste bracing.

New Zealand sauvignons, particularly those sporting lower price tags, rank among the world’s most exuberant wines. There’s nothing subtle about them. Alan Scott 2005, Redcliffe 2005 and Villa Maria 2005, all about $15, are fine examples. Kim Crawford 2005 ($18) tastes even more harmonious while being equally vivacious. These wines are so crisp and refreshing that they seem to cut right through heat and humidity.

The absence of wood flavors in white wines does not necessarily imply delicacy. So long as rich flavors come from grapes rather than barrels, summer whites can taste lush, even luxurious. If you’re looking for a wine to pair with grilled seafood, for example, or fried chicken — dishes that call for something fairly substantial — try either an unwooded chardonnay or a Spanish albarino. Good examples of both taste substantial yet at the same time fresh.

I have written recently about the charms of chardonnay when not obscured by oak, and I won’t repeat myself. Let me just note that these wines can be both refreshing and generous — a beguiling combination. My current favorites include Chehalem “INOX” 2005 from Oregon and Morgan “Metallico” 2005 from California’s Monterey County. Both cost about $20 and will provide sumptuous summer sipping. Albarino from Rias Baixas in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia is another grape that yields rich but racy white wines. Delicious with seafood (the vineyards overlook the Atlantic), albarino also pairs nicely with poultry.

Be sure to look for recent vintages. Like almost all good summer whites, they don’t improve with age. Vionta 2005 ($15) provides a tasty introduction. Richer and more exciting (but also more expensive), Morgadio 2005 ($22) and Lusco ($25) impress for both their depth of flavor and their exquisite balance.

When it comes to summertime red wines, softness is key. Firm tannin, the element that gives age-worthy reds their tight structure, can seem unpleasant at a hot, sticky summer cookout. Look instead for reds that are young and lively, with pliant tannins and silky textures.

To pair with cold meats at picnics or summer suppers, no wine works better than Beaujolais. Not the overtly grapey “nouveau,” but the more substantial versions — good Beaujolais-Villages or a wine from one of the crus, the villages or communes whose names adorn the bottles. You can’t go wrong with Georges Duboeuf, the widely acknowledged leader in the region, whose wines sport distinctive flower labels. Look for the Duboeuf 2004s from crus such as Fleurie, Morgon, and Regnie. All cost less than $13.

You can take a step up in quality with Beaujolais when you select a cru wine from a specific vineyard or estate. With these, choose a 2003. This was the best vintage in the region in a generation. The lesser wines have turned tired, but the prestige ones are at their peak. Two that are sure to please are Jacques Lapierre’s Morgon ($24) and Louis Jadot’s Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent ($25).

At barbecues and cookouts, where you’ll want deeper, richer reds, California zinfandel can be a fine choice. Be sure to avoid wines with excessive alcohol levels (an unfortunate trend these days). They taste hot — just what you don’t want in the middle of summer.

The Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is home to some of the finest zins, particularly those fashioned in a restrained rather than riotous style. Quivira makes one of the best. Filled with briary red and black fruit flavor, the 2003 costs $22. Other Dry Creek zins worth seeking out include the appropriately named Dry Creek Vineyards Heritage 2003 ($17) and Pedroncelli’s 2002 Bushnell Vineyard ($18).

Malbec from Argentina is another good summer red. Again, be sure to select a soft version made for easy, early drinking rather than a reserve or special selection designed for aging. Malbecs in this style taste of plums and dark cherries, with a hint of spice (sometimes anise) and a somewhat floral bouquet. El Portillo 2005 from Bodegas Salentein ($9) tastes splendid and is priced ridiculously low. Also look for Alamos 2004 ($10) and Dona Paula 2005 ($12). Pop the cork on any of these and fire up the grill.

Finally, in summer, don’t forget the other wine color: pink. Dry blush or rose wines make for super warm-weather drinking. Served chilled, they’re supremely refreshing, but being made from dark grapes, they have enough substance to stand up to a wide variety of foods.

Good roses come from virtually all the Mediterranean countries. Wines that have impressed me recently include Kir-Yianni “Akakies” 2005 from the Macedonia area of Greece ($12), Domaine de Fondreche Cotes du Ventoux 2005 ($12) and Domaine Perrin Cotes du Rhone Reserve ($12) from France, and Marques de Caceres 2005 ($11) from Rioja in Spain.

No matter whether white, red or pink, any of the wines recommended above should enliven suppers in the months ahead. They’ll prove the lyrics of another old song true, as they’ll bring easy livin’ to summertime.

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