Hot weather demands cold wines. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop exploring new varietals and regions. In fact, summer is arguably the best time to hit the trail in search of crisp, unoaked whites that refresh your palate and your interest in wine. Here are some good options.
Is there a better, widely available, food-friendly white wine for summer sipping than sauv blanc? It’s a grape that expresses itself differently wherever it’s grown – grassy and sharp, stony and herbal, bursting with lime and citrus, tasting of ripe peach and tropical fruits, or (sadly) round and oaky.
My personal favorites are from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, at the eastern edge of France’s Loire Valley. These wines are breathtakingly dry and steely. The best bargains come from less-pedigreed regions nearby, such as Quincy, Menetou-Salon and Reuilly. Look for such widely available producers as Henri Bourgeois and Oisly & Thésée.
Bone dry, crisply restrained sauvignon blancs are also made throughout northeast Italy. Labeled simply sauvignon these are mountain fresh with a palate-cleansing quality. Some excellent producers are Livio Felluga, Marco Felluga, Jermann, Schiopetto and Venica & Venica.
Chile’s Casablanca Valley is another place to find affordable, light and quaffable sauv blancs, with flavors showing more bright citrus than steely mineral. Quite honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with any white wine (sauv blanc or chardonnay) from this region, no matter who is the producer.
New Zealand has also developed a fine reputation for stylish sauvignon blancs, often tasting of lime, citrus and green herbs. Look for producers such as Brancott, Stoneleigh and Kim Crawford.
Here in Washington, you’ll find plenty of lovely renditions (and some sauv-sémillon blends) that display the brilliant clarity and laser-sharp acidity of the grape. New releases are flooding the market this time of year; among my recent favorites are Arbor Crest 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Cadaretta 2008 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($22); Chinook 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($18); Efesté 2008 Feral Sauvignon Blanc ($18); Lone Canary 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($13); Milbrandt Vineyards 2007 Traditions Sauvignon Blanc (sold in their tasting room only); Novelty Hill 2007 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($18); and Sineann’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (from Oregon’s Columbia valley, $20).
The Mâcon region of Burgundy is home to a sea of so-so wines, but as is often the case, bargains and better wines are there if you know where to look. Start with the designation Mâcon-Villages, which is a higher quality designation, and then look for wines from a specific named village, such as Mâcon-Verzé or Mâcon-Prissé. Don’t worry too much about which village – there are 43 in all, some entirely making co-op wines (not necessarily bad) and some you’ll never find outside the region.
Mâcon-Villages wines are generally light, tangy, fruity and above all fresh. They rarely see time in new oak, nor do they need to. This is good, clean, simple French chardonnay, the kind you chill and swill and pretend you’re in some charming little café admiring buff locals in skimpy outfits.
Recent vintages are all good, so no worries there, but avoid anything pre-2005 – it’s probably been sitting too long in some warehouse or on a dusty shelf. You’ll find good wines priced from $12 to $20 – I wouldn’t pay more. Chateau de la Greffière is an excellent producer, and anything labeled “Vieilles Vignes” (old vines) is likely to bring extra complexity. Best to rely on your wine retailer for guidance.
Grüner veltliner – often referred to by a cute nickname, such as Gru-V, is a grape that thrives especially well in Austria. White pepper, fresh herb, white peach and a citrusy cut to the acids make this a perfect summer wine. It is similar to sauvignon blanc, but less prone to asparagus flavors, and generally more focused and terroir-specific. Good inexpensive examples such as Glatzer and Forstreiter can be found for around $12-$14; but prices climb rather steeply as you get into the vineyard-designates from the best regions.
If you want to taste the best, hunt down a Schloss Gobelsburg 2007 Grüner Veltliner ‘Renner’ from the Kamptal region (you may have to practice gargling in the shower to blurt that tongue-twister out). But really, the cheaper grüners are rarely groaners; they are relatively low in alcohol, bone dry, perfectly balanced, and nicely compatible with picnic spreads.
We are just now starting to see grüner growing in Washington and Oregon; Syncline makes a pleasing version ($20) from the Underwood Mountain vineyard in the Columbia Gorge.
I match all these well-chilled summer whites with just about any picnic food you can imagine: pasta salads, chips and dips, hummus, smoked salmon, grilled chicken, hot dogs. OK, maybe not ribs or steaks (if there is barbecue sauce in the equation, you really might want to switch to beer) – but just about anything else.
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