Whether you prefer the original in Porgy and Bess or the sampled refrain by Sublime, the song says it’s “summertime and the livin’ is easy.” And who are we to argue? When it’s warm outside and the evenings run long, it’s time to turn to wines that are easy both on the palate and the wallet.
Summer is the season of fishing, outdoor grilling, eating lighter, and certainly drinking lighter. Sure, you may develop an occasional craving for a burly red wine to accompany a juicy hamburger or steak off the grill, but the chances are greater that this summer you will be drinking your fair share of crisp, well-chilled whites and rosés. And by all means you should. It’s definitely the right time of the year to indulge in the flowery characteristics and fruity dispositions of some of the world’s finest light wines, and in this roundup by our team of editors and contributors you will encounter 36 of these wines, all with superb character, individuality and big-time flavor.
Not surprisingly, given the fact that our tasting team is spread across two continents, our selections are quite international in scope. A total of seven countries are represented, proving that most winemakers, regardless of where they reside, can make pleasant summer wines if they put their minds to it. In Italy, for instance, there are producers in Soave, Tuscany, Sardinia, and Sicily who are blending imported varietals such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with local grapes to give personality and depth to what have traditionally been fairly bland offerings. Some French producers, too, are following the same policy, showing us that wines that were once viewed as being industrial—Muscadet or Pouilly-Fuissé, for example—can be exciting and stimulating. And have you poured yourself a glass of good Provençal or Rhône rosé lately? Maybe it’s the tradition—or maybe it’s fond memories of a trip to the Côte d’Azur—but the combination of a perfectly chilled, enticingly pink rosé, a dose of summer sunshine, and some tasty light fare is nothing if not heaven-sent.
For good summer whites, New Zealand and South Africa are both beneficiaries of maritime-influenced climates that keep the grapes racy and healthy. And it’s with their Sauvignon Blancs, which burst with the freshest essence of grapefruit and lime, that these relative newcomers are turning heads the world over.
Based on a remarkable resurgence in quality during the 1990s, Germany is another country worth taking a look at for deliciously fruity summer whites. Rarely are the wines heavy or overloaded with glycerin and alcohol. In fact, at the Kabinett and Spätlese levels, the two types of German Rieslings best suited for warm-weather drinking, the alcohol is below 10 percent and the acidity is bracing.
And not to overlook what’s happening on the local front, from up and down the West Coast you can find great summer wines in a plethora of styles and varietals: dry rosés, sparkling wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, even some sweet wines that maintain enough zip to function as ideal companions to creamy or fruity desserts.
So when the mercury rises and it’s time to seek wines that add a refreshing edge to your casual outdoor party or Sunday evening meal, kick back and enjoy with these three dozen wines that are as well made as they are thirst-quenching.
W I N N I N G S E R V E S
By Michael Schachner, Senior Editor
91 Babcock 1999 Pinot Grigio (Santa Barbara County,
This is a revelation in U.S. Pinot Grigio/Gris. It is full-bodied and weighty as well as delightfully thirst-quenching. It’s packed with peach and papaya flavors, which are propped up by a solid backbone of acidity. A welcome pithy bitterness works to frame the vibrant fruit. Look at it as versatility in a bottle, as it will stand up to grilled pork tenderloin or add class to your basic picnic salad. If you are skeptical that a Pinot Grigio could garner such a high rating, just wait until you try this South Coast gem.
91 Simunye 1999 Sauvignon Blanc (Coastal Region, South Africa); $17
Over the years there have been plenty of high-profile international wine joint ventures, some more groundbreaking than others. Long-time California winemaker Zelma Long and her wine-growing husband, Phillip Freese, have teamed up with Michael Back of Backsberg Estate in Paarl, South Africa, to create Simunye (pronounced “sea-MOON-yay”), Zulu for “We Are One.” The first wine of the project, a Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch grapes, is gorgeous and vivacious, with the roundest mouthfeel going. It’s the perfect wine for a wedding or a classy Labor Day soirée.
91 Tohu 1999 Chardonnay (Gisborne, New Zealand); $16
If you haven’t yet jumped on board the New Zealand bandwagon, then it’s prime time to make the trip. New Zealand has mastered the art of making racy Chardonnays, and with Tohu the combination of freshness and complexity is outstanding. If through repetitive palate assault you have developed a liking for brawny California Chardonnays, this one will probably come across as atypical. But a more analytical approach will reveal a full-out winner, with pineapple, mango and banana offset by a defined mineral edge. Spicy food brings out previously hidden refreshing elements, and then honey and lime take over on the dry finish.
90 Cline 1998 Roussanne (Carneros, California); $20
In the Northern Rhône the vignerons turn this grape into Hermitage Blanc. In California only a few wineries make top-quality Roussanne, and Cline is a leader of the pack. This one is a big-style white with 14% alcohol (so you may want to hold off on popping the cork until after sundown). It has a lime-driven personality, with some talc-like dryness. Underneath, however, is where the real game is played. There’s a warm, honeyed core of spiced pear—also licorice and clove. Because it’s on the large side it deserves fine cuisine, preferably a great piece of fish or grilled lobster tails.
90 Von Schubert 1998 Maximin Grünhauser Abtsberg Riesling Spätlese (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany); $29
Like many German Rieslings, the name is a mouthful, but in this case so is the wine. Pour this light and fruity beauty for anyone who has ever uttered those infamous four words: “I like sweet wines.” Yes, it’s on the sweet side, but bracing acidity and high-quality fruit from a splendid vintage keep it fresher than most of us feel on a humid August weekend. The flavors are of sweet grapefruit and tangerine, with some green apple and cantaloupe thrown in. It will make a brilliant foil for fruit salad or curried rice, and maybe best of all, at only 8% alcohol you can drink it liberally without risking a tumble into the swimming pool.
88 Château Routas 1999 Rouvière Rosé (Coteaux Varois, France); $9
Simply put, there’s nothing not to like about this vinous gift from the South of France. The reasonable price and enticing reddish-pink color don’t distinguish it from the scores of other Provençal rosés nor does the typical blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. But once you breathe in the fresh aromatics and place some of this zippy mint-tinged tongue-teaser in your mouth, you’ll be sold. Rosé flows freely along the Riviera during the hot months, and this one will work splendidly with barbecued chicken and summer salads—greens in a vinaigrette, or cole slaw, shrimp, macaroni or potato salad.
M A K I N G A S P L A S H
By Paul Gregutt, Contributing Editor
91 L’Ecole No. 41 1998 Fries Vineyard-Wahluke Slope Sémillon (Columbia Valley, Washington); $22
The Walla Walla area is home to the greatest concentration of exciting young wineries in the Northwest, so by regional standards L’Ecole is a veteran, with nearly 20 vintages under its belt. Sémillon has been a L’Ecole standout from the get-go, and this version may be the winery’s best ever. It’s intentionally picked extra ripe, then 100% barrel fermented. You should love the tropical-fruit flavors: coconut, mango and apricot. It’s an in-your-face Sémillon that will definitely light up any picnic.
90 WillaKenzie 1999 Pinot Gris (Oregon); $16
The name WillaKenzie refers to the unique soil in this part of Oregon, which lends a
definite hint of terroir to these carefully nurtured wines. French-born winemaker Laurent Montalieu is, in his own words, “working on the microbiological life of the soil” by eliminating herbicides and pesticides and using only organic fertilizers. Such a commitment seems to be paying off in the bottle; this zesty Pinot Gris captures aromas of pear and melon, infuses them with clove and spice, and ultimately freshens the palate with every sip.
89 Waterbrook 1998 Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley, Washington); $8
Pungent scents of papaya and ripe peaches herald a take-no-prisoners approach. Herbs and citrus seep into the mix almost imperceptibly, and then the bright fruit, underscored by bracing acids, kicks in. The grapes come from the Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain, with a hefty (23%) addition of Sagemoor Vineyard Sémillon. Now that it has had some time in bottle, all the flavors have come together and the hard edges have softened. This is a great all-purpose summer sipper.
88 Dr. Bürklin-Wolf 1999 Bürklin Estate Riesling (Pfalz, Germany); $14
Dry German Riesling is a tough sell in this country, but wines such as this may turn the tide. Bürklin-Wolf is Germany’s largest privately-held wine property, and it makes a wide variety of site-specific wines. This is the first “estate” bottling, and it shows tart lemony fruit scented with citrus, spice and mineral. Dry and balanced, it has the bite and ripeness of a Japanese satsuma orange. A bit sour on its own, its many components really connect when it’s paired with seafood and summer salads.
87 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare (California); $10
A deep copper-rose color and an intriguing scent of dried leaves, herbs, rosehips, and citrus mark this instantly appealing, self-proclaimed “Pink Wine” from maverick winemaker Randall Grahm. It instantly makes friends with such summer staples as fried chicken and barbecued pork ribs. Definitely a California-style rosé, its strengths are fruit and herbal influences rather than the intense dryness and ultralong intensity of a quality French rosé such as Bandol. Nonetheless, it’s complex and subtle, delivering a lot of interesting flavor for a modest price.
86 Louis Latour 1998 Saint-Véran Les Deux Moulins (France); $10
The Louis Latour house style throughout a long lineup of white Burgundies is to display the fruit and the vineyard without flash or baloney. In other words, Latour undersells its wines. But if you like the idea of a ten-dollar white Burgundy being friendly, citrusy, and a little steely, with no trace of oak, then this will suit you just fine. For a rousing finale, streaks of lime and mineral grace the surprisingly long, true-to-Burgundy finish.
S U M M E R B O U Q U E T
By Roger Voss, Editor At Large
93 Trimbach 1996 Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling (Alsace, France); $30
If you want the purest expression of bone-dry Riesling, look no further than Trimbach: It’s a winery that has been in business since 1626. The 1996 vintage was a big, full-flavored year, and it gave the Trimbachs the chance to make a classic edition of Cuvée Frédéric Emile. A blend from grand cru vineyards, it has the essential balance of Alsace Riesling, bringing together richness along with citrus flavors and aromas of spice and lemon zest. Drink it now with fish, but you might want to keep a bottle in the cellar for another ten years, because it’s still quite young.
88 Guy Bossard 1999 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine (France); $12
With so much insipid Muscadet on the market, it’s a pleasure to be able to recommend a wine that is both deliciously refreshing and a touch serious. Guy Bossard is the only biodynamic wine producer in the Muscadet region. On his 42-acre Domaine de l’Ecu, he has gone backward to go forward, using a horse for plowing, making his own compost, and at the same time using the latest presses and tanks to ensure that the wine is as fresh as possible. This wine, made entirely from the Melon de Bourgogne grape (as is all Muscadet), is all freshness and concentration. It’s the essence of ripeness, but with that streak of acidity that makes Muscadet the essential partner for shellfish.
87 Château d’Aqueria 1998 Tavel Rosé (France); $14
Tavel describes itself, on a large billboard at the entrance to the village, as making “the finest rosé in France.” If that’s the case, then the rosé of Château d’Aqueria must be the finest of the finest, because it certainly is the best rosé made in Tavel. Situated in the southern Rhône, west of Avignon, the wineries of Tavel make powerful, heady rosés from a blend of Grenache and Syrah. Château d’Aqueria, with its 160 acres of vineyards, has been owned by the Olivier family since the 17th century, but the winemaking has in recent years been modernized so that the rosés are full of fresh raspberry flavors and balancing acidity.
87 Domaine de Fussiacus 1998 Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes (France); $23
Pouilly-Fuissé is generally an overrated, overpriced wine. Occasionally, though, it is possible to see why the sheltered vineyards of Pouilly and Fuissé are so prized. Domaine de Fussiacus, with its 30 acres of vines, is of good size by local standards. It also has a parcel of older vines, and the fruit from that block is used for this special cuvée. The 1998 is a particularly rich Chardonnay, with some good structure alongside powerful fruit. And, just to give it the right Burgundian balance, there is refreshing acidity at the end.
87 Tenute Rapitalà 1999 Casalj (Sicily, Italy); $10
The 262-acre estate of Rapitalà is set among the hills just south of the Sicilian capital of Palermo. Its name comes from the Arabic, Rabidh Allah, meaning “stream of Allah,” a relic of the times when the island was controlled by the Arabs. Today, the winery is owned by the Frenchman Comte Hugues de la Gatinais, but is managed by Gruppo Italiano Vini. The winemaking team has created this blend of Catarratto, a local white grape, with 30% Chardonnay. It’s a full-bodied wine with a ripe character. It features Mediterranean spices and aromatics that are balanced by soft vanilla from six months of aging in new French barriques.
85 Argiolas 1999 Costamolino (Vermentino di Sardegna, Italy); $10
On their 197-acre property close to the Sardinian capital of Cagliari, Antonio Argiolas and his sons have developed a modern winery that uses the traditional Sardinian grape varieties to great effect. This 100% Vermentino is made under the guidance of Tuscan superconsultant Giacomo Tachis (who works with Antinori). The wine is smooth, creamy and aromatic, with crisp acidity and fresh, lightly spicy fruit. It is not a wine to keep, just one to enjoy chilled as an apéritif or with pasta dishes.
A U G U S T L I F E S A V E R S
By Joe Czerwinski, Associate Editor
91 Château Puech-Haut 1997 Le Blanc Epicurien (Coteaux du Languedoc, France); $22
This intriguing blend from proprietor Gérard Bru’s 150-acre estate near Saint-Drézéry sports a pleasantly toasty overlay of spicy oak on top of lush peaches and apricots. Add scents of acacia blossoms to the vivid fruit and you can virtually taste the outdoors. Viscous and rich, the stone fruits and dried spices come together in the mouth in a colorful mix of flavors. Drink now if you like your whites fruit-predominant; it should hold for a year or two, aging into spicy complexity.
90 Vinum 1998 CNW Cuvée Wilson Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Clarksburg, California); $10
“Will work for Chenin,” reads the eccentric label on this bargain-priced offering in which the CNW stands for “Chard No Way.” The duo of Chris Condos (Kathryn Kennedy Winery) and Richard Bruno (a Napa consultant) has crafted a richly fruity wine with a long, juicy finish that shows the heights that low-yielding Chenin Blanc is capable of achieving. Wonderfully pure peach scents mingle with just a hint of oak-imparted spice. No simple thirst-quencher, this is a great choice for a midsummer apéritif.
88 Mas de Gourgonnier 1999 Rosé (Les Baux de Provence, France); $11
From a hilly, rocky region of Provence comes this strawberry- and cherry-scented rosé that bursts with bright fruit. It’s bone-dry and finishes with tart appleskin-cranberry acids, making it a perfect match for a variety of summer noshes. Not one for contemplation, this is a purely hedonistic rosé that’s sure to please all of your guests, from the wine snobs to the wine neophytes. The Cartier brothers, owners of this estate, adhere to organic methods.
87 Fournier 1998 Menetou-Salon (France); $13
Adjacent to the more heralded Sancerre lies the quiet backwater region of Menetou-Salon. Like Sancerre, the grape is Sauvignon Blanc; unlike Sancerre, the appellation hasn’t caught on yet in the States, although it’s a bistro favorite in Paris. Maybe this example will start to change things. Its aromas of grapefruit and just a hint of gooseberry lead into a medium-bodied wine of considerable character. Finishes clean and crisp, with echoes of lime and grapefruit. Try with anything from seafood to simple chicken dishes.
87 Grove Mill 1999 Riesling (Marlborough, New Zealand); $14
Rieslings from Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region may be the ultimate summer wines, with their sprightly mix of spring flowers and green apples. But this New Zealand Riesling offers some worthy competition in a uniquely Kiwi style. Yes, there are the trademark floral, even lilac aromas, but they are complemented by pear and quince, rather than tart green apple. In the mouth, the floral qualities are replaced by a deep spiciness and there’s plenty of acidity to provide refreshment. Despite having around two percent residual sugar, the acids are high enough to make it taste just slightly off-dry—perfect with many scallop dishes. Most people think Sauvignon Blanc when they hear “Marlborough,” this wine shows we shouldn’t be so quick to stereotype.
87 Sauvion du Cleray 1998 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie (France); $9
This minerally, almost briny wine is so crisp, clean, and light that it makes the perfect summer refresher, yet evinces no lack of character in its stoniness, lemon-lime flavors and slight prickle of unreleased carbon dioxide. From near the mouth of the Loire River and the Bay of Biscay, the source of many of France’s marine treasures, it’s perfect for washing down raw littlenecks at home this summer.
C A L I F O R N I A D R E A M I N G
By Steve Heimoff, Contributing Editor
92 Handley 1996 Brut Rosé (Anderson Valley, California); $25
What would summertime be without a sparkler? This luscious bubbly offers delicate waves of raspberry, lime, white chocolate, fresh-baked bread and lees. Winemaker Milla Handley has a personal passion for fusion and Pacific Rim cuisines, and I have had this wine with sushi (a perfect match). It would also make a delightful companion to something as down-home as fried chicken. Only 285 cases were produced, but good things are seldom common.
91 Navarro 1998 Cuvée 128 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino, California); $13
Sauvignon Blanc and summer were made for each other, and when you find yourself in need of a snappy wine to air-condition your body, this charmer will do it effortlessly. Navarro may be better known for its Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir, but they’ve been turning out this fine Sauvignon Blanc for about ten years. To keep the crop from getting too astringent in chilly Mendocino County, Navarro deleafs the vines to let in the sun. They also blended in 11% Sémillon for added richness. The result is this intense lemon-and-lime wine, with hints of kiwi and new-mown grass.
90 Gainey 1998 Limited Selection Late Harvest Riesling (Santa Ynez Valley, California); $20/375ml
Gainey is located in the warmer, eastern side of Santa Ynez Valley. The area produces very fine Rieslings that straddle the line between ripe fruit and minerally, more acidic notes; when the fruit gets a little botrytized in the cool autumn fog, the wine is even better. In this case we have a rich sweetie that opens with aromas of apricot liqueur, vanilla custard, fennel, orange blossom, and honeysuckle. It then explodes on the palate with enormous fruit and spice. The lush, velvety texture adds a hedonistic touch. Vanilla ice cream or crème brûlée would be good partners; at the most basic level, just a ripe, juicy peach or pear would be wonderful with a glass of this nectar.
89 Andrew Murray 1999 Enchanté (Santa Barbara County, California); $20
Even in the heat of summer you may require a classy, high-end wine for fine dining. Enchanté, a Rhône-style blend would be an excellent choice. Andrew Murray is a small Rhône specialist in the Santa Ynez Valley section of Santa Barbara whose blends, both red and white, have in recent years been among the most popular wines in California. This particular wine has all sorts of exotic aromas and flavors suggesting ripe tropical fruits, wildflowers, spices and honey. Sipped on the beach under some swaying palms, it will be especially “enchanting.”
87 McDowell 1998 Grenache Rosé (Mendocino County, California); $9
For an inexpensive dry rosé that’s sure to please the eye and go with just about anything, my choice is this Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah. It’s got ripe aromas of peaches, rose blossoms, nutmeg and strawberries, and it goes down in an appealing, delicately fruity fashion. Unfortunately most Americans don’t like rosés, or don’t think they do. With this one, just pack it in the cooler and bring it to the beach; or enjoy it in the backyard with burgers and hot dogs. Versatility is one of its strongest selling points—you can even give it a splash of sparkling wine and toss in some ripe strawberries.
86 Fetzer 1999 Gewürztraminer (California); $8
Here’s a simple, off-dry cocktail white that doesn’t demand fuss. “Gewürz” means “spicy” in German, and this California version is bursting with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove, not to mention pink grapefruit, peach, orange and apricot flavors. Atop all that there’s more than a smidgin of sweetness. For more than 30 years now Fetzer’s been making inexpensive, likable wines. In this case, the grapes came mainly from cool coastal vineyards in Monterey, Mendocino and Sonoma. Will Rogers once said he never met a man he didn’t like, and I defy anyone to not like this wine.
S U M M E R S T A R S
By Mark Mazur, Tasting Director
90 Bodegas Godeval 1999 Viña Godeval (Valdeorras, Spain); $17
This Galician white has a unique and unusual story. Just a few decades ago, the ancient Godello grape was on its way to extinction, when it was rescued from sure oblivion by a handful of growers in Valdeorras. From an also-resurrected 12th-century monastery (now winery), this estate-grown example is a testament to the efforts of owner Horacio Fernández, a leader in Spain’s modern wine revolution. Crisp aromas of nuts, chalk, citrus and wet stones open to a mouth of nicely etched citrus flavors. The wine has good acidity, yet an attractive, fairly round and chalky mouthfeel. Sip with nibbles such as almonds and cheese, or pair with trout or game hen.
90 Michele Chiarlo 1998 Nivole (Moscato d’Asti, Italy); $10
In its small and stylish half-bottle package, this delightful semisweet and fizzy white from a consistent Piedmont producer is a real winner for warm-weather drinking. It has enough acidity to keep it from being gooey, and its low alcohol level makes it a great choice for consuming while the sun’s still shining. Great as an apéritif or after a meal, it would also work well with coconut shrimp; or try it with a mixed green salad with Gorgonzola cheese, toasted walnuts and dried berries. Just name the food and it’s the perfect patio or pool party starter.
89 Brancott Vineyards 1999 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand); $11
Handsomely built, this offering shows ever so much of what Sauvignon Blanc from this South Pacific island nation has become famous for: lots of zingy grapefruit and lime aromas, followed by similar flavors. Here it comes with a round and pleasing mouthfeel. Full-flavored and textured, and not sharp, it is an elegant drink. Broiled mahi mahi, maybe a salad with goat cheese, even veggies and dip will go well this this—and it’s quite fine on its own, too.
89 Bucci 1998 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico (Italy); $17
A distinguished white from the Verdicchio grape, this wine hails from the Adriatic side of Italy, in the Marche region. The Bucci family has a 300-year history in viniculture, and they have mastered Verdicchio, as this wine proves. With hay, herb, and melon aromas and flavors, and its lovely mouthfeel, this is an enjoyable change of pace for lovers of Chardonnay. Lithely balanced, it ends with a dry, intriguing, and subtly complex mineral and almond note. A fine match for veal, it can even take on artichokes. And it’s just great for grilled fish, chicken or pasta salads.
88 Benziger 1998 Chardonnay (Sonoma County, California); $13
This wine offers up, in a nice affordable package, much of what Americans love about mainstream California Chardonnay. There are caramel and toast aromas on the nose, lots of apple-pear fruit, butterscotch flavors, and tangy citrus accents. Inarguably full on the palate, it is outgoing and crowd-pleasing. It’s big enough for barbecued chicken, yet enough of an easy-drinker to pour with hors d’oeuvres. A quarter-century ago the Benzigers started millions of Americans on the road to better wine drinking with Glen Ellen, and this life-of-the-party wine shows they still have the touch.
86 Pedroncelli 1998 Zinfandel Rosé (Sonoma County, California); $8
Full-colored, with red-berry and sweet-cherry aromas and flavors, but it’s no white Zin. This has some interesting traces of dried roses and wildflowers, and even a faint meaty note that overprocessed white Zinfandel can’t touch. Pedroncelli is typical of the old-line Sonoma families, and to me this wine tastes like an upscaled version of the wines the grandfathers of my Italian friends once made. Tangy and round, it’s sweet, even simple, but in an honest way—and it has more character and body than the average rosé. Try it with glazed pork chops as a main course, or with strawberries and cream for dessert.