A guide to summer wines

It's the season for cheap, delicious, fuss-free bottles. Here's how to buy and pair them

Published June 30, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

I am a Summerlover. When it gets warm, I live in shorts and T-shirts and cook and dine al fresco every chance I get. I love to fire up the grill, and then jump in the water to meditate on the menu, on what's fresh from the garden or farmers' market. And, of course, there's the wine.

Summer wines should be full of fruit, cool and refreshing, and as informal and inexpensive as the Summerlover dress code. When you're relaxing and talking, playing hard-hearted horseshoes or swimming in silence, you don't want to ruminate over ponderous, serious wines of complexity and depth. When the sun is shining, you want the alcohol to be low, so that you don't become groggy, and are able to have safe and responsible funfunfun so that daddy doesn't put the T-bird away. Save those big reds and oaky whites for sitting by the fireplace in the other three seasons, dining on stews, soups and scripted meals. Just as food is seasonal -- tomatoes and corn are the cornerstones of my Summerlover diet -- so is wine. So bring on the Wines of Summer: light, crisp whites; thirst-quenching dry rosés; fruity, luscious reds. And don't forget the bubbles!

In the mood for a salad of fresh greens, studded with boiled, steamed or grilled fish or lobster, dressed dreamily with coarsely puréed watermelon, onion and ripe peaches? There couldn't be anything better with this light and simple dish than a Vinho Verde from Portugal, an elegant, dry white wine that is redolent of grapefruit and citrus, with just a bit of spritz for a refreshing cleansing of the palate.

Vinho Verde is the ultimate Summerlover's wine -- only about 9 to 10 percent alcohol, and not afraid of an ice cube or two, or even a little sparkling water for a magnificent wine spritzer. Vinho Verde is the reigning monarch of the land of ABC (Anything but Chardonnay), and she is a ruler who favors almost unbelievably progressive taxation. Vinho Verde sells for about $5 to $9 per bottle, a truly great wine value, so buy a case or two for the summer. You want to drink this charming wine as young as possible, so look for the 2008 or, even better, the 2009 (often not an actual vintage, but the year the wine was bottled -- look for it on the back label in tiny type). Easy wines to find: Gazela, Avaleda and Casal Garcia, among several others.

Here is a warm-weather mantra for you: "Summerlovers Love Rosé." During the cool months of the year, rosé wines get little notice and less respect, all but forgotten or ignored by wine geeks, but for wine and food lovers who adore fresh, cool flavors of orange and strawberries, dry rosé is a revelation.

Grilled salmon, served medium-rare with tiny roasted red potatoes and roasted summer garlic paired with a chilled dry rosé is nothing short of pink perfection. (OK, add a salad of garden greens with good olive oil and fresh herbs and we really are perfect.) A wine that will enhance your food as well as slake your thirst, rosé is to summer as falling leaves are to autumn, an undeniable part of the landscape. Try the Chivite "Gran Fuedo" Rosado from Navarra, Spain, which is widely available for less than $15 per bottle, as is Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto from Veneto, Italy, Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé from Stellenbosch, South Africa, Wild Rock Vin Gris Rosé from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, and Edmunds St. John "Bone Jolly" Gamay Noir rosé from El Dorado, Calif. 

The burger, cooked and served en plein air, is as much a part of summer's iconography as fireworks on the 4th of July. Serve it with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and onion, salted cucumbers picked that day, ketchup, mustard, mayo and just a touch of Tabasco, with homemade potato salad on the side, and just ask yourself as you taste this American delicacy, "Does it get any better than this?" Well, yes, it does.

Pair that burger with a light, fruity but dry red, such as estate-bottled Gamay Noir from Whitecliff or Pinot Noir from Millbrook, both in the Hudson River Region of New York State, a Beaujolais-Villages from Georges Duboeuf in Burgundy, France, or perhaps best of all, a Valpolicella Classico from Sandro Boscaini's Masi winery in Veneto, Italy (each of these wines is easily under $15). Now, take a sip and taste a true "secret sauce " for that burger, revealed only to your palate. These wines smell and taste of red summer berries. The fruit of the wine harmonizes with the earthy, sweet flavors of the burger, creating a simultaneous counterpoint and complement for the sensual nexus of flavors.

When it comes to wine and its pompous poobahs, what's more fun than a little harmless sacrilege? I say chill these reds. That's right, serve 'em cool, serve 'em cold. Why? Putting a chill on these simple reds will bring out their fresh flavors and pump up the refreshing acidity that we crave on a hot day to refresh our palates. If you taste these wines warm (made even warmer in the glass by your hand and by the sun), they might taste flat and flabby, and lose some of their many charms. Treat these reds like whites when you enjoy them in the summer sunshine.


Sparkling wines are perfect aperitifs, so restorative when sipped outdoors. These wines are also great with cold foods and lighter hot dishes. Try a Cava from Spain (about $8-$13; look for Segura Viudas, Gramona, Elyssia, Freixenet Brut Nature 2004, Paul Chenau, Cordoníu Selección Raventos, Sumarocca, among many others ), or Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington State ($14), or if you're making some Southwestern-style or TexMex dishes, try Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico (about $17). My favorites from California are Iron Horse or Roederer Estate Brut, magnificent wine from magnificent vineyards in Green Valley of Sonoma and the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, respectively (both about $20). For something lighter and simpler, go with a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene from Veneto, Italy. (Bortolomiol "Prior" is a current favorite; Mionetto is a reliable producer, as are Zardetto, La Marca, Nino Franco, and Maschio dei Cavalieri; about $10-$17) You really can't go wrong with well-made sparklers, because they cool you down and perk you up.

The pleasures of summer are many, but fleeting. Before you know it, you'll be shoveling snow, which, to Summerlovers, is cosmic dandruff. But just for now, for these precious few months of warmth and sunshine, let's celebrate our glorious summer season with glorious summer wines.

By Steven Kolpan

Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world

MORE FROM Steven Kolpan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Wine