For most of the year, the serious wine drinker tends to gravitate toward the big reds, the Bordeaux and Cabernets, or follow the great white way of Chardonnay -- powerful wines steeped in history and layered with complexity. All well and good until June rolls around -- at which point the last thing you want from your wine is a challenge. Selecting a summer wine isn't all that different from choosing the right beach reading: You want something light, but not so flimsy that it fails to keep you engaged. To simplify your search for the perfect warm-weather wines, we've recruited some of the city's top experts to do the homework for you.
Perhaps you couldn't face another summer share after too many nights last year when you came home to find a newly formed couple already inhabiting your bed. Or maybe tonight you just couldn't bear the traffic. So you've invited your friends over to your roof to gaze at the stars (or in the direction of where the stars theoretically should be). What to serve the crowd? "Most people drink Chardonnay," says Craft's sommelier, Matthew MacCartney, "but you've got to shake it up a little." In place of Chardonnay -- most are overly oaky, buttery, and just too heavy and high-alcohol for the heat -- MacCartney suggests a Riesling from Alsace, a reliably high-quality wine with none of the sweetness often associated with Rieslings. MacCartney recommends the well-structured, mineral-driven Jean-Baptiste Adam (at around $15 a bottle, it's a great value when you've got to quench a crowd). For an American Riesling, Le Cirque's Ralph Hersom raves about Dr. Konstantin Frank's Dry Riesling ($10), from the Finger Lakes, a featherlight, fragrant wine. "It's dry and ever so sweet," says Hersom. "With no oak at all."
Nicola Marzovilla, the owner of I Trulli and the wine shop Vino, is on a one-man mission to rescue Lambrusco, a fruity, sparkling red, from its sorry reputation as a Riunite-produced, seventies-era soft drink. "In Italy, we drink this wine all the time," he says. Gelsomina Lambrusco Mantovano ($9) and Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano ($21) are guaranteed crowd pleasers. They're much drier than their mid-seventies incarnations, and they take a chill nicely because of the slight fizz. Marzovilla recommends that you serve them with their classic partners: chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano and thin slices of prosciutto, or figs and walnuts. As easy as chips and salsa, and a much better consolation for the hazy view.
Meet the Parents
You've been invited to an evening barbecue at their home on Lillypond Lane -- you'll know you've hit the right house when you see the 37-foot Richard Serra sculpture on the front lawn. So their landscaping's all wrong -- you want to impress them anyway. "Might they know something about wine?" asks Paul Grieco, wine director at Gramercy Tavern. "If so, try a red from Spain like a Ribera del Duero, made from the Tempranillo grape." He suggests an Emilio Moro ($23). "It's a medium-to-full-bodied dry red wine with hints of cherries and notes of currants," explains Grieco. "It tastes classic, but suggests a knowledge of things off the beaten path." On the Fourth of July, go with a great Zinfandel, the only wine Americans can truly claim as their own. Try Seghesio from Sonoma ($16), "a big wine, with big flavor and big color that would work well with all-American foods like steaks, hamburgers, or barbecue," says Grieco.
If they're serving fish or shrimp, a high-acid, refreshing white like Sancerre is always reliable. But for a more surprising choice, Grieco recommends a Caymus Conundrum ($27), a "witches' brew" of white varietals that's rich with notes of citrus and honey. If it's oysters on the menu, he'd eschew the expected crisp Chablis for a very dry Fino Sherry such as Lustau ($15) from Spain, produced near the Atlantic in open barrels so it's inflected with a lovely saltiness from the sea.
Honey, You've Lost the Kids
After tamping down adolescent rebellions all year, you now have the summer back for some renegade behavior of your own. Celebrate by opening a bottle of champagne, but don't settle for the usual suspects. "People should be adventurous with champagnes -- if it's French, and it's made it over here, you can be sure it's good," says MacCartney. He recommends the relatively sweet but well-rounded Jean Milan Carte Blanche (about $30), "a pure blanc de blancs, which means it's made only from the Chardonnay grape." But MacCartney, like almost every other wine expert interviewed for this piece, felt strongly that sparkling wines should be drunk not only on special occasions but all summer long, as an aperitif, or with salad openers or seafood appetizers. A Gatinois Brut Grand Cru ($28), made mostly from Pinot Noir, is robust enough to hold up to a meal, MacCartney advises; like the Carte Blanche, it's less creamy and toasty than, say, Veuve Clicquot, and its fruity flavors perfectly match summer foods.
Splendor in the Glass
For picnic dining, whether it's at Tanglewood or your sister-in-law's backyard in Jersey, nothing mixes better with the smell of fresh-cut grass than a well-cultivated Sauvignon Blanc. Herbaceous with hints of grass, California Sauvignon Blancs have improved in recent years, as producers have reined in that problematic sharpness, according to Joseph Scalice, wine director at March. (Mondavi, in particular, produces a reliably well-balanced bottle: Stags Leap District Sauvignon, $23.) But forced to recommend just one, he goes with a Pallisser ($30) from New Zealand. "It almost has a honeysuckle quality," he says. Elegant, light, and crisp, it works well with otherwise hard-to-match salads and vegetables, even asparagus (although keep Sauvignon Blancs in mind for oysters and clams as well). Le Cirque's Hersom recommends Selene From Hyde Vineyards ($27), which has overtones of grapefruit and melon.
If it's a picnic for two requiring a wine that's sweetly seductive, consider one of the easy-to-down, better-made rosés on the market, "the real rosés," as Felidia's wine manager, Richard Luftig, puts it, "not one of those manipulated chemistry experiments." If the word rosé conjures up images of heart-shaped tubs in the Poconos, try an Italian version and call it rosato instead. Luftig and Craft's MacCartney both choose Antiche Vigneti di Cantalupo Il Mimo ($11), an off-dry, full-flavored wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. Or try the slightly more robust rosato made by Castello di Ama ($15), a well-respected Chianti producer, using Sangiovese. Make sure you get the most recent vintage available -- most summer wines, like everything else that's fun about the season, demand youthful exuberance.
Summer Wine, Uncorked
1. There's no law against putting a simple Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, or anything frissante, in the fridge to chill a little.
2. But don't overchill a strong, complex wine, or it will lose its layering. (The ideal temperature for whites: between 40 and 50 degrees.)
3. On hot days, Portugal's zingy vinho verde, a young sparkler, is the one wine to drink if you're having more than one.
4. Those oak barrels that smoke out the fruit in a Chardonnay are pricey. For summer, your best bets are under $20 a bottle.
5. If you're dining in an air-conditioned home, to hell with the rules. Break out the heaviest red you feel like.