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Hot and Bothered About Summer Wines

Why do so many people turn to cheap and simple wines in the summertime? F&W’s Lettie Teague investigates, then names her favorite all-season options.

I’ve never been a big fan of summer—not for the reasons that most people cite (the heat, the humidity, the high price of a rental beach house), but because summer is so often synonymous with simple and cheap. Put “summer” in front of almost any noun, and you’re likely to get something insubstantial, unchallenging or…cheap. Consider, for example, “summer books.” When was the last time you saw War and Peace touted as a great summer read? Or had a “summer romance” that didn’t end right on Labor Day? Or tasted a “summer wine” whose greatest virtue wasn’t its price?

But my objection is not just that a summer wine is cheap; it’s that it seems limited to one of two types: a light, simple white or a light, simple rosé. I realize why this is the case—they’re both refreshing, ideal for hot weather—and yet, I believe a summer wine can and should be more than that. It should be just as interesting and complex as a wine served at any other time of the year.

So why do people drink cheap wine in the summer? My friend Zander Hargrave says it’s a question of quantity. “People drink more in the summer than they do at any other time of the year,” he opined. Zander discovered wine at a very early age: His parents were the first to plant vines on Long Island’s North Fork, at Hargrave Vineyard. And he acquired expensive tastes along the way. “I like to drink Champagne all year—Charles Heidsieck, Pommery, Pol Roger,” Zander said. “Although I’ll drink sparkling wine, like Roederer Estate from California, in the summer because I’m drinking more then; Champagne is expensive.”

People also tend to economize on wine during the summer because they’re entertaining much more. My friend Liz, a food editor, admits to serving cheap wine, especially cheap whites, to guests at her summertime parties. She announced this quite cheerfully when she and I had dinner recently at X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, a restaurant near my home in suburban New York. I was surprised at her confession: Liz is a food professional, after all. (I told her I would only come to her parties in the fall, winter and spring.)

The more people I talked with—both friends and wine professionals—the more I discovered that they, too, turned to cheap wine in the summer. And the wine retailers I spoke with confirmed this was true.

“Our number-one-selling wine in the summer is a $10 rosé,” Paul Root, a wine merchant in Healdsburg, California, said to me. “It’s been our best-selling summer wine for more than a decade.” Paul added that he also sold a lot of Pinot Grigio, cheap Prosecco and other less-expensive sparkling wines. (Never mind that his Root’s Cellar is best known as a purveyor of sought-after Pinot Noirs and cult Cabernets like Shafer Hillside Select.)

Kevin Mohalley of Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe in suburban Chicago said much the same thing: His normally free-spending clientele pull way back in the summer on per-bottle buying. “They’ll usually stay within the $15 to $30 range,” Kevin said, compared to an average of $80 or so a bottle in the fall, winter and spring.

Kevin has tried to get his customers to drink interesting, complex wines all seasons of the year, but they have resisted, even though Kevin is a role model of sorts—after all, he never drinks cheap wine himself. Unlike most of his customers, Kevin drinks good Vouvray, Sancerre and even rosé all year long. In fact, one of Kevin’s favorite rosés (and one of mine, too) is from Domaine Tempier, the legendary estate in the Bandol region of France. Made of predominantly Mourvèdre, the 2006 Domaine Tempier bottling ($30) is more substantial than most rosés and can even age gracefully for a few years—rare for a rosé.

I also share Kevin’s love of Vouvray; in fact, I drink it throughout the year, especially wines from Philippe Foreau’s Clos Naudin and Domaine Huet, whose 2005 and 2006 bottlings have such complexity and depth that they’re not unlike grand cru Chablis. They’re also crisp and refreshing, with great acidity—perfect qualities for summertime—though at $30 to $45, they’re not exactly cheap.

Kevin and I disagreed, however, about Sancerre, which tends to be too simple for my taste. “My friend The Collector calls it a ‘pool wine,’ ” I said. Kevin conceded that Sancerre could be simple, but he had found two that were dining room–worthy rather than diving board–worthy: the 2006 La Grand Côte single-vineyard Sancerres from Pascal and François Cotat ($45 each). I said I would give them a try, as well as another Sancerre besides: the 2006 Edmond Vatan Clos La Neore ($45). They were all pricier than a typical “summer” Sancerre but, as I discovered, they had such precision of flavor, richness and depth that I could happily drink them all year-round.

“Richness and depth” were the same words employed by Billy Rattner, wine director at X2O (who overheard my conversation with Liz), when he described what he looks for in a summer wine—pretty much the same qualities he looks for in wines throughout the year. And his search does not seem to have gone unrewarded; X2O customers spend about the same on wine in the summer as they do the rest of the year, according to Billy—though he added that some had confessed to drinking more cheaply in the summer at home. (I was mostly impressed that Billy elicits such confessions; I’ve never discussed my retail wine-buying habits with sommeliers, especially if they make me look bad.)

What Billy did lament was his clients’ unwillingness to drink white wines and almost every rosé, except in the summer. The latter fact particularly rankled him. “I love rosés all times of year,” said Billy. “They’re great wines with food—especially the 2006 Torbreck Saignee.” Torbreck is a famous producer in Barossa, Australia, and its rosé, like Tempier’s, is made from Mourvèdre. Saignee (“bleeding”) is the process of removing or “bleeding” some of the wine off and fermenting it separately, thus making a more tannic, more deeply colored rosé.

Leo Barrera, wine director of Tabla in New York City, is also a big fan of “off-season” rosé—in fact, he had an impressive six rosés on his list when I visited this spring (five more than most restaurants at that time of the year). He too had the Torbreck, which he pronounced a “seasonless” rosé and “a great wine with a rib eye.” (Leo has had substantial experience pairing wine with steak; he was once the wine director of Craftsteak.) He adds a few less-expensive wines to the list in the summer but otherwise doesn’t change Tabla’s wine list very much, because, as he said, “I don’t go by the season, I go by the food.”

It seemed like a sound philosophy to me, especially after I tried the Torbreck rosé with Tabla’s tandoori lamb and found that the wine’s big, earthy, meaty flavors matched the gaminess of the lamb perfectly. The wine was substantial but still refreshing. And at $47 a bottle on the Tabla list, it wasn’t cheap. I’d drink it all year, too, I told him. “I don’t have many customers who think that way,” Leo replied rather dolefully. “They think rosé is only for summer. I’m lucky if I sell a case of it the rest of the year.”

Refusing to drink a wine because of its color made as much sense as drinking cheap wine because it was hot. The smartest people I know don’t suddenly start reading Nelson DeMille when the temperature hits a certain number of degrees. For example, my friend Jim Simons, a math genius and the founder of Renaissance Technologies (the world’s largest hedge fund), reads Edith Wharton’s memoirs in the summer and drinks Silver Oak Cabernet much of the year.

I decided to compile my own list of worthy summer wines—the rosés I love (like the Domaine Tempier and the Torbreck); crisp, clean whites; sparkling wines; and ripe (but not too ripe ) reds—all with fairly high degrees of acidity (and soft tannins, in the case of the reds) but most importantly with complexity and substance.

First, I looked for alternatives to Champagne and found a crisp méthode champenoise from South Africa, the 2006 Graham Beck Brut Rosé ($19); and the lush yet refined Roederer Estate Brut Rosé NV ($27), made in California by Louis Roederer, the fabled French Champagne house.

I also found several alternatives to Pinot Grigio, that ubiquitous crisp summer white. They were all as refreshing as Pinot Grigio but possessed charms of a much more enduring kind. Two came from the Alto Adige region of Italy (which also produces Pinot Grigio). The 2006 Feldmarschall from Tiefenbrunner, made from old-vine Müller-Thurgau, is a wine of great purity and intensity. It’s also gorgeously aromatic, with a long, minerally finish, and even at $37 it’s quite reasonably priced. A bit lighter in body and even less expensive is the 2006 Kerner (Kerner is a cross between Riesling and Schiava, a red grape) from Abbazia di Novacella ($24), another white from an obscure grape that I would (and do) drink all year. It has wonderful floral aromas and bright, cleansing acidity as well. My third favorite white is Soave from the Veneto-based producer Leonildo Pieropan. His single-vineyard 2005 Pieropan La Rocca ($50) is a savory, barrel-aged wine that’s considered one of the best whites of Italy, and unlike most Italian whites, it actually improves with age.

And finally, because a summer without red wine is as unthinkable as a winter or fall without it, I went looking for some seasonless reds and found several candidates from the Rhône, including one that costs only $20 a bottle: the 2006 Perrin & Fils Les Cornuds Vinsobres, a blend of Grenache and Syrah that’s chewy and ripe, well-balanced between tannins and fruit and several steps up from a Côtes-du-Rhône.

I also found a couple of lively Cabernet Francs, including the 2006 Lang & Reed North Coast ($22) from California and the 2005 Bernard Baudry Les Grézeaux Chinon ($24) from the Loire Valley in France. Both are marked by intense aromas of black and red fruits and are refreshing and juicy, yet substantial enough to last well beyond summer.

The more wines I tasted, the more options I found. And while none were particularly cheap, none were wildly expensive, either. And most importantly, they could be consumed with pleasure in spring, winter and fall—which, in my opinion, are the best seasons of all.

Published June 2008
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