TCS Daily


The Red Wines of Summer

By Stephen Bainbridge - August 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Soda pop shapes the palate of most Americans long before we taste our first wine. We're used to sweet, cold, fizzy drinks. Not surprisingly, we usually cut our wine teeth on wine coolers or, at best, intensely sweet White Zinfandel. Later, perhaps, as our tastes evolve, we move into off-dry white wines, such as Kendall-Jackson's ever-so-slightly sweet Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay.

Just as St. Paul eventually put away childish things when he became an adult, so too the evolving oenophile eventually realizes that the highest and best duty of any wine is to be red.

Is there a finer culinary experience than a perfectly roasted Gigot d'agneau matched with a fully mature Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon or red Bordeaux from a great vintage? Or, to move down the rusticity scale, Pot au Feu with a still youthful Northern Rhone Côte-Rôtie, South Australian Shiraz, or Sonoma Zinfandel?

Well, maybe not when it's 90+ degrees outside and the humidity is so high that you start growing mold the moment you step outside. In conditions like we've been having here in Southern California the last month or so, rich comfort foods and the big red wines that accompany them are utterly unappealing. Instead, we want our meals to be light, refreshing, and relaxed. So we reach for the whites in the cellar or even (shudder) the beer in the fridge.

In fact, however, there is a world of red wines out there that work perfectly well in summer. Ideally, a red wine for summer will have most of these characteristics:

  • Light to medium body
  • Able to be served while chilled to cold cellar temperature (say 54 degrees)
  • Smooth tannins, but enough acidity to be refreshing
  • Low alcohol, since few things are less refreshing than the hot sensation of high alcohol
  • Plenty of fruit and perhaps the slightest touch of residual sugar, especially when being asked to match spicy barbecue

Beaujolais likely would be the first wine that comes to mind when looking for one matching this checklist. Not Beaujolais Nouveau, which is execrable to begin with, and is mostly undrinkable after the Easter following the vintage. Beaujolais Villages typically is a bit too ambitious for our purposes, since it often aspires to be a sort of junior Burgundy. (Of course, the lightest Pinot Noir-based Burgundies can find a place on the summer table on cooler evenings.)

Beyond Beaujolais one might experiment with Valpolicella (but not Amarone or Valpolicella Ripasso, both of which are huge winter-weight wines), basic Chianti (avoid Riservas and even Chianti Classico, which tend to be better suited to winter's tomato sauced based braises). Traditionally vinified Barbera from Italy's Piedmont also falls into this category, but this is another wine whose makers seem increasingly determined to turn into a 'serious wine," which means more of everything -- alcohol, tannins, and so on -- that makes for lousy summer drinking.

If you will be guided by me, however, there are two red wines that are ideal for summer fun. First, red wines from France's Loire valley, especially those from Chinon. The Chinon AOC covers about 5000 acres under vine in and around 18 villages located along the Vienne River. There is a small percentage of white wine made from Chenin Blanc, along with a somewhat larger amount of rose. The bulk of the production, however, is a light to medium-bodied red wine made mainly from Cabernet Franc (although up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon can be included).

Compared to red Bordeaux, Chinon tends to be lower in alcohol and tannins, but slightly more acidic, which makes it a refreshing drink. Chinon also tends to be drinkable upon release, although the bigger examples will improve with medium-term cellaring (say up to 8 years after vintage). The berry fruit, olive, herb, and floral (especially violets) aromas and flavors offered by a good Chinon match well with a wide range of summer foods from grilled meat to salmon on a cedar plank.

Chinon can be really tough to find. Even in a major city like Los Angeles, the best wine stores typically carry only a couple of examples. But your search is almost certain to be rewarded by a great summer wine.

When my wife and I were in Australia last summer, however, we found what has become our go-to red wine for summer: sparkling Shiraz.

We first tasted a sparkling Shiraz at Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley. It was a revelation: a red wine made into a champagne-style sparkling wine.

I don't understand why this style of wine isn't in huge demand in the United States. It offers the cold bubbles we love in cola drinks; indeed, some taste just like cherry cola (albeit with a kick!). Also, it can be drunk far colder than most red wines (45 minutes in the refrigerator is ideal), which also should appeal to an American palate brought up on soft drinks. Yet most are vinified to produce dry wines (i.e., not sweet), so they match well with food.

Sparkling Shiraz is a true red wine, so those of us hoping the French paradox will stave off heart trouble ought to embrace it. It's got intense berry flavors, far beyond any true Champagne, which matches nicely to the spicy food we love. In fact, if there is a better match for pork or chicken doused in barbecue sauce, I haven't found it. The bubbles - along with a healthy dose of acids and round tannins - scrub your palate clean, which makes it a great match not only for BBQ but also greasy foods like pepperoni pizza.

Although the froth signals a fun wine, most are serious wines that offer the connoisseur all the intellectual pleasure of a quality still red wine. If you pay attention, the difference between a sparkling Shiraz sourced from the Barossa Valley and one made from Yarra Valley grapes become apparent with experience.

There is no reason US wineries couldn't make great sparkling red wines. After all, we're making great Syrah in places like California and Washington, which would make fine sparkling Shiraz. Besides which, there was a time when California's own Zinfandel routinely was made into champagne style white wines (and some wineries still do so, especially Beringer). Why not turn red Zinfandel wine into our sparkling red wine? I just don't get it.

For my reviews of Australian sparkling Shiraz, go here. The best US source I've found for these wines is the Jug Shop in San Francisco, which sells online and ships to most of those enlightened states that allow direct-to-consumer sales.

* * *

When the rule that red wine should be served at "room temperature" arose, the rooms people were talking about were the drafty dining rooms of English manors. Central heating and global warming were centuries in the future, so room temperature meant something in the vicinity of 60-65 degrees. Even today, most red wines taste best when served at around 60 degrees. Below that temperature, many begin to taste sharp, as fruit flavors mute and as tannins and acids predominate. (The lighter bodied reds we've been discussing here being an exception, as they are usually better slightly colder, say mid-50s). If you're served a wine that is too cold, just let it warm in the glass.

In the US these days, of course, you're far more likely to encounter a red wine served at 70+ degrees. At that temperature, the alcohol starts to volatilize and you experience a hot sensation on both the nose and palate. The solution is simple, but requires confidence. Ask for an ice bucket and stick the red wine in it for 10 minutes or so to knock the edge off. You will almost certainly face anything from condescension to non-cooperation. After all, you're dealing with barbarians -- if the staff and management knew anything about wine, they'd serve red wines at a proper temperature. But it's your bottle and you can do what you like. And next time, go someplace where they treat wine with the respect it deserves.

Steve Bainbridge is a Professor of Law at UCLA and TCS Contributing Editor. He writes two popular blogs: ProfessorBainbridge.com and ProfessorBainbridgeOnWine.com.

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11 Comments

Heady Brew?
Although I personally empathize with Mr. Bainbridge's (readily apparent) affection for red wine, the fact that such a frivolous culinary piece should warrant a banner position on TCS Daily is quite a disappointing commentary on the site's editorial priorities. Then again, perhaps, given the (expectantly) adversarial nature of the comments made regarding so many of TCS Daily's topics, the piece was merely an opportunity to spark argumentative fisticuffs amongst the red vs. white afficianados, in the vein of so many other incessant, historical rivalries such as PC vs. Mac, Ford vs. Chevy, Van Damme vs. Seagal, Christina vs. Britney, and other momentous barroom debate topics. Just more fodder for the contentious, I suppose....

We protect life to enjoy life
This is an example of why I love TCS so much.

I enjoy the call-to-arms and informative pieces that educate me on the war against terrorism, bad economic policies, and even African poverty. But what is the point of fighting if we do not enjoy the fruits of the freedom (even economic freedom) that we seek to protect? For what reasons should we fight against Islamofascism? I can easily give you one reason why I don’t want to live under an Islamic autocracy.
http://www.leedsgrandmosque.com/khutbahs/khutba-20060428.pdf#search=%22do%20muslims%20drink%20alcohol%22

So should I stick my merlot in the fridge for 20mins?

There are several nice sparkling wines one can find...
For reds, try the Italian Lambrusco. These can range from tart-dry to sweet, but nowhere near as sweet as the Asti. Believe it or not, Riunite imports a reasonably good Lambrusco for a very fair price. There are also several sparking reds (and whites) from the Collio hillsides in the Friuli-Venezia region in north-eastern Italia. But they are rare in the USA, mostly being consumed locally.

For nice summery dry whites, there are, of course, Champagnes, though I prefer the fruity Clairette de Die made from the Cincault grape, itself responsible for some great dry rose wines. Finally, don't underrate the dry Italian Prosecco wines of northern Italia.

I fully agree that sparking wines are a wonderfully refreshing alternative in the hot summer months. Though I would rather drink mine in the sidewalk cafes of Venezia or Chambéry, tipping a glass with friends here at home is certainly a pleasant alternative.

Cheers

French??
There's enough good wine from Caifornia, Australia and Chile among other places that there's just no need to give aid and comfort to the French. No matter what the price, no matter what the quality- French Whine-Just Say NO!

Lighten up Francis...
It's a late Summer Friday fer crissakes!

I love TCS too . . .
. . . which is why I was a bit surpised at this puffy wine piece. And I can think of a helluva lot more important reasons to be opposed to Islamofascism than simply that in the West I'm able to choose between a Valpolicella and a Dolcetto. If I want esoteric wine info, I can certainly find in-depth websites focused on that.

What's next -- Emeril musing about how to make a great quiche?

Chuck the merlot, --strike a blow with Chateau Musar
If you want to grab Islamic autocrats by their short palates , stock up on Chateau Musar, the grande vin de Liban, which has been resisting gunfire and winning blind tastings at least since Sampson got eyeless in Gaza.

Entre deux mers
Can you suggest an Algerian burgundy , or Paraguyan shiraz that goes well with monkey brains au gratin?

I'm having some Italian Swiss colonists over to celebrate Lord Cornwallis splendid victory at Yorktown, and would not want the drinks to remind them how those creeps La Fayette and DeGrasse almost spoiled the proceedings

Shudder? Pass me a beer...
Forget red versus white, I want to discuss this oeneophile distaste for beer and beer drinkers. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to even find this article on here, given that it has nothing to do with international relations, technology, society att-large or economics. I assumed that the author would relate wine to some other topic, but I was wrong. The author did, however, "shudder" at the prospect of beer.

People have been drinking beer since before 6000 B.C. One major part of the beer-drinking culture is that it is not - in large part - snobbish. People do have favorite beers and they will debate the relative merits of their favorite brew at least until the last bottle is empty, but they are not going to pretend that they are BETTER than anyone else for their choice of beer. The one (and as far as I can tell, only,) exception to this is the light vs. dark beer dispute, with the dark beer drinkers considering light beer one step away from Communism.

Wine lovers, on the other hand, seem to have a revulsion for people who drink beer. Apparently, that sort of proletarian beverage is below the almighty wine guzzler. Well, get over it. You can rant about tannins and sugars and oak vs. whatever other sort of wood you like, but it is still just a beverage. I applaud you for your knowledge of fine wines, but your excrement still produces foul odors.

Shudder? At beer drinkers? Americans have never really started drinking wine because of that sort of attitude.

Now somebody pass me a beer. (Not a light beer, you might as well collectivize agriculture and establish a national health care system if you're going to drink light beer...)

No Subject
Cave Publiam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant, aut tecum fierit malatesta .

America is doing better there too, perhaps better than Europe.
There was a time, not too long ago, where all the good beers and ales were from either Canada or Europe.

But now, with the enlightenment of taste, we now find micro breweries and microbrew beers on the shelves throughout the western US, anyway.

It is no longer a choice of light versus dark there are pale ales, amber ales, nut brown ales, hefeweissens, stouts, etc.

You have to admire the young generations for their dedication to taste, even in beers and ales. Most of these microbreweries were started by the young crowd. Their product rose in fame and stature, not because of heavy advertising or sponsoring football teams and games on TV, they made it because they have a quality product.

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