Summer wines (July 28, 2005)
Of all seasons, summer is the most eccentric when it comes to wine drinking. At least it is for me. In cooler weather I'm happy to drink full-bodied reds and oaky whites, and if the reds have tannins, that's okay, since I like my meat rare. Warning to vegetarians: the next sentence may turn you into carnivores or make you give up on this column altogether. Tannins in red wine, which taste slightly woody and bitter and have a drying effect on the palate, help to balance the taste of iron in the blood of meat.
But summer is too languid for big, bold wines with evident oak and mouth-puckering tannins. Since you tend to spend a lot of time outdoors, you are not looking for complex wines that are the taste equivalent of chess problems. So save your aged Barolos and Châteauneuf-du-Papes for the cool weather.
Wines for the deck, the dock or the patio have to be refreshing and flavourful. And if they have a little residual sweetness that helps too. I am not suggesting there are hard and fast rules as to what you should consume outdoors in the heat of summer Dionysus is not going to descend from on high and set about you with a vinestock if he catches you drinking lukewarm Montrachet out of a plastic mug but there are certain principles to keep in mind.
First of all, alcohol. The combination of a 14.5 per cent California Chardonnay and sunshine can be dangerous. Especially if the wine warms up. Alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, and when it gets over room temperature the alcohol begins to evaporate. The wine loses its structure and tastes soupy. So always keep your bottle well chilled. Half-fill your wine bucket with water before you put in the ice cubes so that the entire bottle is immersed in icy water. If you want to speed up the chilling process, add a tablespoon of salt to the water before you add your ice cubes.
Choose wines that are relatively low in alcohol to begin with. This points you to German Rieslings, which to my palate are the ideal summer wine because they have the right balance of peachy-apricot fruit and tangy citrus acidity. You can find Rieslings from the Mosel as low as 8 per cent.
My favourite summer wine for sipping outdoors is Moscato d'Asti from Piedmont, which is only 5 per cent and has a wonderfully rich, grapey flavour with hints of cardamom and carnation and a light prickle on the tongue. These wines come and go at Vintages, but you can find the sparkling version on the general list as Asti Spumante which tends to be sweeter. Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante sells for $12.25. If you chill it well, but not so cold that it frosts the glass, it will lower the perception of sweetness and bring out the acidity in the wine that makes it taste fresher.
I find that sparkling wines generally are more thirst quenching in the heat than still wines. You don't have to sip Champagne poolside unless you've won the lottery or you have a government contract to promote Canada in Quebec. There are several sparklers in the budget range that will do the job. Currently, I like Seaview Brut from Australia ($11.45) and the drier Segura Viudas Brut ($12.60) and Codorníu Brut Clásico ($10.95) from Spain and Bottega Vino dei Poeti Prosecco from Veneto ($14.20).
Aesthetically, there is nothing more attractive or inviting than to see a glass of dry rosé on the table with a plate of cold cuts. Ontario's Cave Spring does a good job with their rosé tart red currant and cranberry flavours at $11.65. Jean Jean Arabesque Syrah Rosé from the Midi is worth considering, too, if you have to serve the neighbourhood at your pool party ($9.50). Both of these pink wines are resolutely dry, but a touch of residual sugar in a rosé is a good thing if your barbecue marinade is hot and spicy. For three-alarm chicken drumsticks or garlicky spareribs, I would choose a much-denigrated wine Blush, a.k.a. White Zindandel. The best one on the market is Beringer White Zinfandel ($10.95), which has a flavour of sweet strawberries and watermelon.
Finally, to red wines. To beat the heat, go for light- to medium-bodied reds, preferably made without recourse to oak. You want fresh and fruity flavours and that points to wines made by carbonic maceration, the technique they use in the production of Beaujolais. Instead of crushing the grapes and allowing the split berries to macerate in their own juice during fermentation, whole clusters are dumped into a stainless steel vat. They weight of the top bunches pressing on those below crushes the bottom grapes, which begin to ferment. The carbon dioxide gas given off is trapped in the vat and, since the fermentation has nowhere to go, it gets inside each of the uncrushed berries. A week or so later the grapes are pressed and you get a wine that is very low in tannin. A wine that you can drink, in fact, after a few weeks and that, gentle reader, is how Beaujolais Nouveau is made. In fact, virtually all Beaujolais is made this way which makes it an ideal summer wine when you chill it.