Beach. A word that frees the mind and relaxes the soul, instantly conjuring up thoughts of surf, sand, salt air, summer. And, if you're like me, bottles of wine.
Grapes and people have two things in common: They both worship the sun. In fact, much of the finest beachfront property on the planet is within striking distance of the most celebrated viticultural regions. The following places have not only some of the best beaches in the world but also some its most "beachworthy" wines.
Some winemaking regions, like California's Central Coast, may supply sun, fun and Chardonnay, but Galicia, in Spain's dour (though verdant) northwestern corner, can claim that Franco was born there. Beaches range from those on the bleak Costa de la Muerte to sunny La Lanzada and Playa América. Galicia is also home to the third-holiest site in Christendom--Santiago de Compostela--and exciting white wines made from the Albariño grape. The main viticultural region is Rías Baixas, which is spared much of the rain that plagues the north.
1998 Fillaboa Albariño ($17).
Although Albariños are said to resemble Viogniers, this one is more like an assertive Riesling, with intoxicating flavors of honeydew.
1998 Martín Códax Albariño ($13).
This smooth, bright, dry wine has a impressively long finish. An amazing value.
1999 Bodegas As Laxas Albariño ($14).
Slightly sharper than the Martín Códax, yet with a creamy finish, it's surprisingly developed for so young a wine.
Liguria, in northwest Italy, features a stunning crescent coastline and one of the smallest wine productions in the country. Although this is the region that gave the world pesto, its wines are so obscure, they practically have cult status. The white wines possess scintillating, briny qualities, while the rosés are big and flavorful.
1998 Bisson Golfo del Tigullio Ciliegiolo ($11).
This pink wine, packed with layers of fruit--strawberries, cherries, even crab apples--is really closer to a red, and its relative robustness makes it an excellent summer alternative to Chianti and Sangiovese as a pasta accompaniment.
1998 Walter de Battè Cinque Terre ($35).
The color of this wine is sunlight refracted through honey. I've never had a white wine that tastes so much like the sea. The price is a bit high, but this elegant wine is impressive.
1998 Bisson Golfo del Tigullio Vermentino Montebernardo ($15).
The Vermentino grape produces a wine similar to Sauvignon Blanc--crisp, fresh and quite dry.
Nothing says "beach" quite like Provence, the place where the whole concept of seaside luxury was first defined. Nice, Cannes, Saint-Tropez--the names are like a surfside Hall of Fame. The wines, on the other hand, are less renowned, but still delicious and enjoyable.
1998 Georges Duboeuf Viognier ($10).
A shellfish-wine extraordinaire, this bottling is as smooth and light as they come. It can complement the delicate flavors of shrimp or stand up to the richness of crab and lobster.
1998 Domaine de Gournier Vin de Pays des Cévennes-Uzège Chardonnay ($10).
This low-wattage white is made halfway between Avignon and Nîmes. Anyone tired of Chardonnays in which syrupy fruit flavors or oak dominates will find this oak-free wine, with its flavor of freshly sliced pears, a welcome change.
1999 Mas de Gourgonnier Rosé ($11).
No Provençal wine list is complete without a rosé. Not only is this refreshing example widely available, it's always reliable.
Big Sur, California
From Jack London (who scouted sandbars and pondered surfers back when Los Angeles was considered frontier territory) to the Beach Boys (who've provided the unofficial sound track of summer), the Golden State has always been tied to sand and surf. The Central Coast wine region, which stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to just north of Santa Barbara, is located in ten counties and includes legendary beaches such as Pismo, Pebble and Half Moon Bay.
1997 Morro Bay Chardonnay ($8).
The Chalone Group is behind this affordable, unpretentious, buttery wine redolent of pineapple and vanilla. It's named after the Central Coast's most recognizable landmark--the 576-foot volcanic hulk called Morro Rock.
1998 Robert Mondavi Coastal Pinot Noir ($13).
Given that many Central Coast Pinots typically fetch $30 and more a bottle, it's encouraging to discover Robert Mondavi producing a silky, subtle, budget-friendly alternative that's redolent of moist, loamy soil and cherries still dewy from a soft Pacific rain.
1997 Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Merlot ($10).
One of California's old-time Cabernet producers (famed for its Georges de Latour label) delivers great value with this bottle, crammed full of blackberries and spice. Serve this wine with a hamburger at your next backyard barbecue.
Marlborough, New Zealand
There are so many beaches and so many places to windsurf and kayak in and around Marlborough, it's a wonder the locals find the time to make wine at all. In fact, until 1973 there weren't any vineyards in Marlborough, which stretches inland from Cloudy Bay, near the northern tip of South Island. Today, the combination of a sun-drenched climate and a can-do attitude has resulted in some of the best Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand, if not the world.
1999 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc ($12).
This wine, marked by an impeccable fruit-acid balance and a clean, herbal finish, proves why Marlborough has achieved a world-class reputation for its Sauvignon Blanc style. How can a wine at this price taste so good?
1999 Stoneleigh Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($10).
This entry-level Sauvignon suffers from none of the weediness for which the varietal is often faulted. Tangy apple and lime flavors serve as a prelude to creamy midpalate flavors that give way to a cleansing mineral finish.
1998 Brancott Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($15).
This is hands down the best summer white I've tasted in a long time. Produced by Montana Wines, which started the Sauvignon Blanc grape rush in 1973, this white is marked by notes of ripe melons and mangos, with a spicy finish. The Brancott is a chance to find out what Marlborough's leading Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay, tastes like, at a gentler price.