Summer calls for summer food, and summer food calls for summer wines -- wines that are light, chilly, and not too serious, so that they leave you light and chilled, too. And -- surprise -- this includes red wines. Chilled red wine? Of course. It's summer, and it's too darn hot for stuffy rules.
While your usual summer choice might be a jug of something simple, like an inexpensive white Zinfandel, you'll be rewarded if you give your summer wines at least half as much thought as you give your summer food. With just a little bit of effort, you can drink wines that are interesting, that will make all of your brilliant dishes taste even better, and that don't have to cost more than you're accustomed to paying.
Start with light and easy-to-prepare summer foods -- salads, grilled vegetables, and seafood. The wine you choose should have that same elegant nonchalance. Consider a Muscadet from France. It's easy to buy (often about $6), and it has a crisp, citrusy, somewhat earthy, austere taste that makes it ideal with many warm-weather dishes.
Another possibility for summer meals is a Pinot Gris from Oregon, one of the most charming white wines around. One of our friends describes it as "like drinking the cold." It has a special zest that makes even mustard potato salad dance in your mouth. And don't rule out wines from places more exotic than California or France, because they're sometimes great deals. Crisp, lemony Vinho Verde from Portugal is often available for about $6, and makes even the most basic dishes -- say, grilled vegetables doused with extra-virgin olive oil and a spritz of lemon, or a light fish, or pasta with pesto and walnuts -- seem like the most special meal.
As your food gets more complex, your wine can, too. Sancerre, from the Loire Valley of France, tastes like a very ripe, just-picked green apple. Imagine that juicy flavor with curried chicken salad or a roasted chicken with cranberry relish. Sancerre is made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, so if you'd rather stay closer to home, try the Sauvignon Blanc from Beringer Vineyards in California. It's rich and fruity, a fabulous mouthful of wine, and fun just sipped alone. While it doesn't need food -- unlike Muscadet or Vinho Verde, which hit their highest notes with food -- Sauvignon Blanc can give a lift to turkey or ham sandwiches, chicken and seafood salads, and crudites with a simple dip. It's heavenly with a Waldorf salad.
And even though we know you're probably skeptical, you should try a German Riesling, because there are few better wines with pork roast and lamb sandwiches. German wine labels are so elaborate they're scary, but look for the words Riesling and Kabinett, which means the wine is a drier (not sweet) one made from the wonderful Riesling grape. If you happen to see Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which is the region it comes from, the wine will likely be especially flowery and lovely. Chill well, open by the pool, and sip. Or chill well, sip -- and pretend you're by a pool.
Americans drink a huge amount of white Zinfandel -- in fact, more than any other kind of American wine except Chardonnay. There's about one bottle of white Zinfandel sold each year for every man, woman, and child in the United States! Don't ever feel bad about drinking such an inexpensive, simple, quaffing wine; every wine has its time and place. But also don't feel that you have to settle for white Zinfandels that are nothing more than adult Kool-Aid.
There are white Zinfandels out there that not only are pleasant and easy to drink, but can actually add some complexity and spirit to your picnic foods, like cold roast chicken, grilled shrimp, smoked meats, and potato salad. If you're ever lucky enough to see the white Zinfandel from De Loach Vineyards, grab it. It's America's best. Weinstock Cellars makes a good one, too, and it's kosher.
We'd suggest avoiding most American roses because they tend to be slightly sweet and too heavy to go with light summer dishes, although Wolffer Estate/Sagpond Vineyards from Long Island, New York, and Swanson Vineyards and Hart Winery, both of California, make good ones. In any case, rose wines from France -- they're fruity, flinty, and a bit earthy -- are actually less expensive, and far better with hamburgers, tuna steaks, grilled vegetables (think mushrooms), and barbecued chicken.
Barbecue? Of course. Barbecue doesn't just mean beer. Try a Beaujolais from France. The one from Georges Duboeuf, which you can find almost everywhere, is only about $6 and excellent. But be sure to chill it slightly. Yes, it's okay to chill some red wines. It's summer, after all. The diffuse flavors of Beaujolais are far better and more concentrated when the wine is slightly chilled. Place it in ice water for five minutes or so, or in the refrigerator for a half hour. A chilled, young Beaujolais with ribs hot off the grill or a rotisserie chicken that you've picked up -- how easy! -- would be heaven. Another possibility: an inexpensive Rioja from Spain, also slightly chilled (we like Marques de Riscal).
And those aren't the only reds that can be chilled. If you've never tried a light, young, fresh Pinot Noir from Oregon with poached salmon, hot or cold, you owe it to yourself. Some Oregon Pinot Noirs can be very expensive, but quite a few are reasonable.
When dinner is over, treat yourself to a dessert wine. You may not think you like dessert wines, but try a Moscato d'Asti from Italy. It's light, fresh, slightly fizzy, and delightful (and usually low in alcohol), absolutely perfect with fresh berries, chilled melon, berry compotes, poached pears, fruit pies and tarts, cookies, and custards.
Finally, our most important piece of advice: At all times, keep a bottle of bubbly in the refrigerator. Chandon Brut or Blanc de Noirs, from California, is usually available for $15 or less. A chilled bottle of bubbly is indispensable for summer because you never know when the perfect sunset will appear.