Although the calendar says it's still nearly two weeks away, summer is upon us. The surest sign, perhaps, is the sight of friends and families dining "al fresco," outdoors under the setting sun, sipping on wine.
During the summer, many food lovers forego heavy winter fare for fresher, lighter foods. Some, however, see the warmer months as a time to fire up the backyard grill and set the flames to spiced or marinated cuts of beef, poultry and game.
So, the question arises, what kind of wine goes best with summer salads, grilled fare and a heavy dose of Rocky Mountain sunshine? Should the brawny, tannic reds be stashed away with the skis, or should they be poured as usual?
The answer is as simple as one wants it to be. Truly, many styles of wines can be appropriate for summer, from a slightly chilled pinot noir to a crisp, grassy sauvignon blanc. Often, the first inclination is to gravitate toward cold wines—they are refreshing in the heat. However, a rising thermometer does not preclude the enjoyment of red wines.
As a general rule, the burly cabernet sauvignons, merlots and Bordeaux blends are best left in the cellar. Preferable with most summer dishes are younger, more acidic wines—they tend to match up very well with fresh seafood, salads and lighter grilled fare.
Light white wines, which should generally be served chilled but not icy cold, can be poured as an afternoon apéritif or as a complement to a variety of summer meals.
Crisp, fruit-endowed dry rieslings and chenin blancs pair well with fish dishes and picnic foods. Gewürztraminer—when finished dry as is done in the French region of Alsace—is often served with spicy foods, but also marries well with oysters and exotic mixed greens. A pinot grigio—pinot gris to the French—or a light sauvignon blanc can be the perfect choice to accompany appetizers, cheeses and summer salads.
Classic citrus- and mineral-scented sauvignon blancs from New Zealand or France's Loire Valley also make an ideal match for herbed chicken and many shellfish dishes.
Chardonnays, which range from lighter-style wines from the French region of Chablis to buttery, heavily oaked boutique wines from California, pair exquisitely with rich seafood dishes, such as salmon steaks or lobster.
Dry, sparkling white wines, particularly those from the French region of Champagne or California's Napa Valley, are considered by some to be the ultimate summer wines. Their crisp flavors marry particularly well with oysters and other shellfish.
Summer also offers fresh opportunities to experiment with red wines.
Light-bodied reds, including gamay-based Beaujolais wines and many pinot noirs, can be served slightly chilled with pork and poultry. For grilled meats, a more robust cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, sangiovese or syrah might be preferable, unless the mercury is truly soaring.
In my book, the ultimate warm-weather wine is a dry rosé: a rosé Champagne or a still rosé from the south of France.
Dry rosé wines, which are made from pressed red grapes but left to interact with the skins for less time than red wines, can pair up magically with grilled fish, cold poultry and smoked meats. The fruit-forward flavors are also a fine accompaniment to fine cheese, summer salads and many lighter desserts.
Do not—as so many Americans do—mistakenly overlook dry rosés from France, Italy, Spain or California as something akin to sweet white zinfandels. They are in a separate class altogether. They are light, crisp and refreshing, and at their best offer up delicate hints of strawberry and cherry.
In southern France, one is more likely to see a pitcher or bottle of a local rosé on the lunch table than a bottle of Evian. And it might just cost the same.
Yes, pink can be cool.
Five recommended rosés
Domaine Tempier—Bandol Rosé 2005: From the beautiful Mediterranean resort area of Bandol.
Bergerie de l'Hortus —Coteaux de Languedoc 2005: A delightful rosé from southern France that is often made available in the Wood River Valley.
La Vielle Ferme—Cotes du Ventoux Rosé 2005: An affordable and widely available rosé from Provence.
Domaine de la Mondorée—Tavel 2005: A highly rated still rosé from the village of Tavel, near Chateauneuf du Pape.
Gloria Ferrer—Brut Rosé Carneros: A fine sparkling wine from the Napa region.