Fresh, Fragrant Whites Are Perfect For Warm Weather

What I like most about spring and summer is the blossoming of aromas and how that signals the awakening of life after the rest of winter.  And a cool white wine is just the compliment for the warmer weather. But not just any white wine and certainly not Chardonnay, which is fine but I’m looking for alternatives that are generally lighter and more refreshing.

For my purposes here, that mostly means the so-called “aromatic whites” Riesling and Muscat. These delightful wines are crisp, fruity, and fragrant. And they are natural matches for the lighter foods of summer. It also means the white Rhone varietals – Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne, which admittedly are more “Chardonnay-like” but offer intriguingly different flavor profiles.

For generally reasonable prices, these wines also provide a refreshing combination of acidity and in many cases moderate alcohol – perfect for warm weather. They are great as aperitifs or with food. They are especially good with Asian food but would work well with spicy foods, picnic fare, salads and even simple grilled foods.

I’m one of those who think that, all things considered, riesling makes the greatest white wines in the world. In Germany and Alsace it produces aromatic wines of high acid and, unusual for a white wine, potentially long life. The fragrant, flowery aromas lead into fresh green apple, pear and occasionally peach, apricot, pineapple, or mineral flavors are delivered with bracing acidity.

No Alsatians in my recent tastings but a tasty 2009 Rudolf Müller Riesling from Germany (2009, $10 or $24 3L Octavin) offers good everyday drinking. From Australia, the 2009 Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa ($16) from a cool climate estate vineyard is a good example of how well this grape can do down under. In the U.S., Washington State is making world class Riesling. A recent favorite is the 2009 Seven Hills Columbia Valley ($14). It is made in a refreshing low alcohol style that is slightly sweet. From California, the 2009 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve ($12) and 2009 Carmel Road Monterey ($14) also are tasty options.

Much to my pleasant surprise, a recent market report announced that moscato is the fastest growing varietal with sales last year almost doubling. I have long been a fan of Italy’s Moscato d’Asti. This floral, fruity, slightly effervescent wine from the Piedmont is made from the partially fermented juice of white muscat grapes. It is sweet, delightfully aromatic and delicate on the palate, low alcohol (6%) and equally comfortable as an aperitif or a dessert wine.

The 2010 Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Asti ($16) is exemplary of the style from a favorite producer. Camposaldo makes a similarly enjoyable 2010 Moscato ($14) from grapes grown in Lombardy. And what better proof do I need of the grape’s newfound popularity than the delightful 2010 Moscato ($7) I just tasted from none other than Australia’s [yellow tail]. The mass producer actually has done a decent job of imitating Italy’s signature style.

One of California’s leading producers of Rhone-style wines is Santa Barbara’s Zaca Mesa. Zaca Mesa was one of the first vineyards in the region, having been established in the Santa Ynez Valley in the early 1970’s. They have released a 2009 Viognier ($20) that offers honey and loads of exotic fruits and a silky texture with a vibrant finish. Their 2007 Roussanne ($25) deals in apricots and figs laced with zippy acidity, full body and an intriguing waxy texture.

Another fine choice is the 2008 Treana White ($25), from one of the leading Paso Robles grower/winemaking families who here has blended Marsanne and Viognier mostly from Monterey’s esteemed Mer Soleil Vineyard into a juicy wine of honeyed citrus and tropical fruits. Washington also is excelling with Rhine varietals. I was especially impressed with Seven Hills 2009 Viognier Talcott Vineyard ($20). The wine explodes with ripe, juicy peach and honeysuckle, with hints of citrus and stone fruits.

Chenin Blanc, native to the Loire Valley, also is a personal favorite. In California, it is usually produced in a fruity, slightly sweet style, though a few brave souls (like Dry Creek Vineyard) make a dry style inspired by the fine wines of Savennieres. I recently tasted for the first time an innovative chenin blanc blend from Pine Ridge, one of the pioneering wineries in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. The winery has a reputation as a master at blending. Its 2009 Chenin Blanc + Viognier ($12) is a unique and uniquely successful combination of Clarksburg chenin blanc and Lodi viognier.

The recommendations above are a good start on the summer white wine search. Next comes a quest for Gewurztraminer, Albarino, Verdejo, Torrontes, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Pinot Blanc and other good reasons to look forward to spring and summer.

European (And One South African) Reds For Summer Grilling

Although it’s common to think more about white wines as the weather warms, many of us still enjoy a good red, even in summer. I’ve come across several good candidates to match with the season’s grilled and more casual foods.

A fine place to start, maybe to toast the season, is with a bottle of red bubbly. That’s right, red. I suggest the unique Italian sparkler from the Piedmont region known as Brachetto d’Acqui (signifying first the grape, then the town). The 2010 Rosa Regale ($20) from the highly regarded Banfi family is deeply fruited (cherry, strawberry) and exuberant, with refreshingly low alcohol.

As a wine that is generally best slightly chilled, Beaujolais is the ideal red for warm weather. From the northern French region of the same name, Beaujolais is made using a special whole bunch fermentation process solely with the gamay grape, known for a flavor profile of mostly bright red fruits, floral, herbal and mineral notes, and lively acidity. I’ve recently enjoyed several good ones from the highly touted 2009 vintage. Whichever level you choose, Beaujolais represent s one of the best values around.

For a good introduction to the region sample a wine labeled “Beaujolais-Villages.” These are blended from specifically authorized vineyards in the northern of the region. A reliable option here is the 2009 Louis Jadot ($13), which shows a typically lighter but fleshy character with touches of licorice and lively red fruits.

Next try a wine from one of the ten most important villages (or “cru”). Here, a great place to start is with the “Flower Label” wines of Georges Dubeouf, probably the most respected and widely available producer. A good one is the 2009 Morgon ($14), which has richness and depth not often found with many other crus.

There also are single-vineyard Beaujolais that are a real treat for their distinctiveness. Two more from Duboeuf: 2009 Moulin-a-Vent “Tour du Bief” ($17) – quite full and rich, with many layers – and especially 2009 Fleurie “Domaine des Quatre Vents” ($17) – floral, full of ripe fruit, yet balanced and velvety.

From the southern France region of Rousillon near the border with Spain comes another option, this time a blend of so-called Rhone varietals. The 2008 Chateau de Jau Cotes du Roussillon Villages ($16) combines syrah, mourvedre, carignan, and grenache to produce an easy drinking wine of darker fruits and soft tannins.

This time of year, I’m especially fond of Portuguese table wine. While the region surrounding the Douro River in northern Portugal is famous for Port, table wine from the area has become a go-to choice for excellent value. The wines are made with the same varieties used to make Port and even sourced from the same vineyards as each winery’s Port.

The 2008 Dow’s “Valle do Bomfim” ($12) offers bright mixed berry fruit, spicy intrigue and a balance of structure with mellow tannins. The 2008 Quinta de Roriz “Prazo de Roriz” ($17) delivers deep fruit, mostly black cherry, and an appealing mineral note in a stylish frame that also finishes with soft tannins. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the region known for making the great Port wines would emerge as a contender in quality table wines.

Finally, for those of you who insist on a Cabernet Sauvignon, I submit the 2008 Glen Carlou “Grand Classique” ($20). South African wines have improved significantly in recent years and this one, Glen Carlou’s signature red wine, is a really fine example of a Bordeaux-style blend. The addition of merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc results in a wine with impressive complexity for the price. Strong black cherry and plum wrapped in an oak blanket are accompanied by touches of tobacco and mint. The velvety texture compliments a tight structure.

Whether it’s a classic cab, a hearty Douro, a bottle of Mediterranean sunshine, a refreshing Beaujolais, or an effervescent Italian, you can’t go wrong with red this summer.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.