- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Wine will be flowing at picnics and cookouts all around Washington today, as well as the rest of summer. Whether with fireworks on the Fourth, during vacation at the beach or mountains, or on the deck or patio at home, good wine helps make living easy during this most satisfying of seasons.

In Washington, though, summer also means steamy, sticky days and sultry nights, not the easiest conditions for any wine to show its best.

Just as a hearty beef stew that proves satisfying in midwinter can seem unpleasantly heavy in summer, a powerful wine that tastes sumptuous in January can seem soupy in July. Unless you never leave your air-conditioned cocoon, choosing wine for summer sipping can be a challenge in the mid-Atlantic.

To help, I’ve assembled a sampler case with 12 favorite summer wines. These aren’t specific bottles so much as types or categories within which you can make your own selections. I’m listing some individual wines that you might consider, but these particulars are less important than the more general categories.

SPANISH CAVAS

You can drink French champagne if your budget allows, but in hot summer weather, cool, crisp cava from Penedes in northeastern Spain is often my bubbly of choice.

Good cavas invariably display an earthy, nutty character that makes them food-friendly. They pair especially well with cold summer soups like gazpacho. Current favorites include Segura Viudas “Aria” Brut ($11) and, in a slightly sweeter style, Cristalino Extra Dry ($10). As those prices suggest, cava has the added advantage of almost always being quite easy on that budget.

BASQUE COUNTRY WHITES

Near the Spanish cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, in the shadow of the Pyrenees mountains, odd-sounding grapes yield delectable white wines.

One such grape is named hondarribi zuri. It yields bright, fresh, almost searing wines that cut through humidity like a razor. Light in body but full of flavor, they pair wonderfully with grilled seafood. Try Txakoli Txomin Etxaniz 2006 ($15) or Itsas Mendi 2006 ($20). The language and culture here is Basque, and these wines taste extremely compelling.

AUSTRALIAN RIESLINGS

Riesling, especially when made in a crisp, bright style can be a wonderful summer white. Delicious Rieslings hail from France’s Alsace, and Austria, Germany and the Finger Lakes region of New York, but more and more also seem to be coming to our shores from Australia.

Many of the best-known Australian Rieslings hail from the Clare and Eden valleys in South Australia, but equally good ones come from out west, particularly the Great Southern region of Western Australia. They display vivacious citrus flavors, are deliciously dry, and pair beautifully with Thai and other Asian-influenced salads. Plantagenet’s 2006 ($16) is a stellar example.

NEW ZEALAND SAUVIGNON BLANCS

Ten years ago, New Zealand sauvignon blanc seemed exotic. Now it’s a mainstream item in wine shops and on restaurant lists, because the wines taste vivacious, filled with slightly sweet citrus — especially grapefruit — flavors, with an exciting herbal undertone.

They’re just about the best wines anywhere to pair with shellfish, since their racy acidity provides the perfect counterpoint to the briny taste of the sea. Many excellent New Zealand sauvignons are available in local shops. Seifried 2006 from Nelson ($16) is one you won’t want to miss.

UNOAKED CHARDONNAYS

Oak-laced chardonnay can seem too rich and heavy in summer. This time of year, look instead for wines in which the winemaker deliberately has eschewed wood in favor of a cleaner, fresher style.

The model for this style is Chablis from northern Burgundy in France. Yet good Chablis invariably benefits from a few years of aging. This summer, you want a wine to drink, not cellar. So head to the American West Coast, where more and more winemakers are experimenting with this unoaked style. Chehalem’s INOX 2006 from Oregon ($24) is a fine example, as is Morgan “Metallico” 2006 from California ($22). Try these with rich seafood dishes — lobster, perhaps, or crab cakes.

OREGON PINOT GRIS

Good pinot gris from Oregon tastes neither as rich and honeyed as this varietal does in Alsace nor as crisp and clipped as it does in Italy (where it goes by the name pinot grigio). Instead, Oregon pinot gris treads a fine line between opulence and restraint. So when well done, it satisfies both sides of brain and palate. A fantastic partner for salmon in just about any guise, it’s a wine well worth getting to know. My current favorites include Adelsheim 2006 ($22) and Ponzi 2006 ($18).

FRENCH ROSE

Rose made in a fruit-filled but essentially dry style is becoming ever more popular with American wine drinkers. And why not? The wines can satisfy the desire for something substantial while remaining cool and refreshing.

Fine roses hail from all over the winemaking globe, but Mediterranean France remains the best single source. There, dry rose is the classic partner for bouillabaisse. Back here, it’s great with Tex-Mex dishes that have some peppery heat. You can find many fine roses from the south of France in local shops this time of year, but don’t miss Mas de Guiot from Costieres de Nimes ($10). It’s a real steal.

BEAUJOLAIS CRUS

Beaujolais from one of the classified villages or crus is the ideal picnic wine. Its juicy red berry flavors and firm structure enables it to pair wonderfully with ham, salami and all sorts of cold, cured meats. It also goes well with cheese since it’s never too tannic. The 2005 vintage yielded many excellent wines. Don’t buy anything older, but do look for Potel-Aviron Moulin-a-Vent “Vieilles Vignes” 2005 ($20) and Laurent Martray Brouilly “Vieilles Vignes” 2005 ($17).

PIEDMONT BARBERAS

The barbera grape from vineyards ringing the towns of Alba and Asti in Italy’s Piedmont yields ripe but soft red wines that never seem excessively hot or heavy, even in midsummer. They’re good cookout wines, great with hamburgers with all the fixings.

Some expensive renditions come in a seriously oak-influenced style. This time of year, look instead for the less costly, fruit-driven ones. Lodali Bric Sant’Ambrogio Barbara d’Alba 2005 ($13) is a first-rate example.

CHINON AND BOURGUEIL

Made primarily with cabernet franc grapes in France’s Loire Valley, these two reds (really three, since Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is a separate appellation from Bourgueil) makes deliciously undervalued reds. Relatively light in body, they display fresh raspberry flavors with an appealing minty or green herb undertone.

Few reds anywhere legitimately can be called crisp. These can. Les Petites Roches Chinon 2004 from Charles Joguet ($19), one of the region’s finest producers, provides a fine introduction. Try it with grilled or roasted pork tenderloin.

ARGENTINE MALBEC

If you’re grilling steaks this summer, consider opening a bottle of malbec to serve with them. This grape hails from Bordeaux and Cahors in southwestern France, but comes deliciously into its own in the Mendoza region of Argentina.

Although top producers there make many excellent, age-worthy renditions, pass these by if your goal is near-term, warm-weather drinking and look instead for wines in which dark fruit flavors come to the fore. My current favorites in this easy-to-drink style include Terrazas de los Andes Alto 2005 ($12) and Crios de Susana Balbo 2005 ($15).

DRY CREEK ZINS

Red zinfandel, with its spicy, briary character, is tailor-made for spicy, tomato-based barbecue sauces that have been slathered on ribs or chicken.

Unfortunately, too many zins these days come in a heavy, high-alcohol style. No matter how tasty, they seem hot and clunky when the temperature tops 90 degrees.

The best source for more restrained zinfandel is Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. Although not always true, the top wines there tend to be marked as much by finesse as by brawn. Quivira 2004 ($22) is a quality leader.

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