Lights in August

Corn on the cob, tomatoes that don’t taste like a sliced-up dish sponge, clams on the half-shell after a day at the beach, eating dinner while it’s still light out – some of the best meals of the year are coming up. Selecting the right wine can be a tough call, though, since the hotter it gets, the less appealing a tannic, leathery Cabernet Sauvignon or a rich, plummy Merlot becomes. Many otherwise pampered palates get by on beer or soda during these months, but surely, that’s needless deprivation. There are plenty of delicious wines that go well with tank tops and shorts.

We turned to several local wine pros – four sommeliers and the owner of a wine bar – for suggestions about what to sip this summer. Although these guys are used to pouring auction-worthy vintages at the city’s finest restaurants, all recommendations here are reasonably priced and available at local shops.

Summer rule No. 1 is that younger, lighter-style wines make the best company. “When I’m thinking long summer days, a big oaky California Chardonnay really doesn’t thrill me,” says Ralph Hersom, the 28-year-old wine director for Le Cirque2000. “What I like for the summer are crisp whites, and by crisp whites I mean whites that have seen little or no oak.” An Alsatian Riesling, like a 1996 Trimbach ($12.95 at Sherry-Lehmann, 679 Madison Avenue, near 61st Street; 838-7500), will do the job nicely, he says.

Working for an Alsatian boss, Alexander Adlgasser, the sommelier at Jean Georges, drinks Riesling all year round. But for the summer, he recommends the 1997 Paul Blanck($14 at Acker Merrall & Condit, 160 West 72nd Street; 787-1700): “It’s very light, dry, and has soft acidity.”

The best warm-weather whites do tend to fit that description. Ben Breen, the chief sommelier at Veritas (the oenophile’s Valhalla, with 1,400 labels to choose from), favors a Sauvignon Blanc, like a 1997 Domaine Henry Pellé’s Ménétou-Salon Morogues($12.99 at Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Avenue, near 68th Street; 772-3211). This wine goes down like mineral water yet has an interesting, almost herbal flavor. Another Breen recommendation is the 1996 Domaine des Baumard Savennières ($17.99 at Acker), a dry Chenin Blanc that is loaded with plenty of mineral and citrus flavors. “It’s something I don’t have on our list, but I’m looking to get some,” he confides. “I used to run a few lists on Nantucket last summer, and we blew through Savennières. It became the rage thing.”

Both of these wines are from the Loire Valley. Centuries ago, the Loire was a sort of medieval Hamptons, and French royals were the medieval Rennarts who built their monstrously large summer châteaux there. “If you were going to pick one area of the world where you could go and find some very interesting wines for the summer, it would be Loire,” says Hersom. Sancerre (Hemingway drank it “crackling cold” while driving from Paris to Spain), Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet (the ultimate shellfish wine), and Vouvray (Hersom likes the 1997 Champalou, which is $11.99 at Garnet and is sweet, with notes of pineapple and lemon) all drink well in the summer. Garnet sells an impressive range of Loire whites. To learn more, talk to the buyer, David Lillie; he’s a devotee who travels to the region every year.

For a picnic, Hersom might tote a 1998 Domaine Bourillon-Dorléans ($13.99 at Garnet), a deliciously drinkable dry Vouvray with citrus notes that goes great with foods like cold fried chicken, pasta salad, and cheese. Nicola Marzovilla, the owner of i Trulli and neighboring wine bar Enoteca, says that there are a number of excellent rosés cascading out of his homeland about this time. A favorite among customers is still the 1997 Regaleali Rosato ($7.99 at Crossroads, 55 West 14th Street; 924-3060). “Rosés are good on their own,” he says. “Or with first courses. Nothing too heavy.”

When relaxing on the patio, Marzovilla drinks an unusual Piedmontese concoction, a 1997 Brachetto D’Acqui Banfi ($14.99 at Astor Wines & Spirits, 12 Astor Place; 674-7500). It’s a delicious sparkling red wine that smells like rose petals and tastes fruity without being cloyingly sweet; the fizz gives it a crisp finish. “It’s something that’s not very well known in this country,” says Marzovilla. The low alcohol content (7 percent) means you’re less likely to fall into the pool when you get up to open another bottle. In Italy, it’s a dessert wine (its ideal mate is anything chocolate), but Marzovilla says Americans prefer it as an aperitif, which is how he serves it in i Trulli’s garden. Another sparkling, low-alcohol wine to consider is Moscato D’Asti. Michael Greenlee at Gotham Bar & Grill likes the 1998 Saracco ($13.99 at Crossroads); it’s weak enough, says Greenlee, that you can practically drink it like Kool-Aid.

But it’s the grill that truly tests a summer wine. The intense flavors of grilled meats laugh in the face of most of the wines mentioned thus far. Faced with jerk chicken or barbecued spare ribs, Bacchus himself would be tempted to reach for a Coors Light. But that wouldn’t be sporting. “I like rosé,” says Hersom. “You treat it as a white wine, so you do serve it slightly chilled. But because it is made from red grapes, it has a little more oomph to it.” He recommends the 1996 Vin du Mistral ($10.99 at Acker), a grenache rosé made by Joseph Phelps. It has enough berry flavor and just a hint of tannin to please those who usually stay in the red. Ned Benedict, the sommelier at Aureole, insists that if you’re eating grilled meats, especially beef, you need something that will stand up to the smoky flavor. For that, he’d pour a spicy red like a Zinfandel or a Syrah such as E. Guigal’s Côtes-du-Rhône 1996 ($8.99 at Garnet). Of course, not all summer meals are eaten at a picnic table: An excellent choice for special occasions is the 1997 Dönnhoff Spatlese Riesling ($24.99 at Acker). “I would say the ‘97s are just kicking ass,” says Michael Greenlee at Gotham Bar & Grill. “Nineteen ninety-seven was a really stellar vintage in Germany.” The Dönnhoff is a serious white wine with apple and citrus flavors that are best experienced with food. It’s also the ideal dinner-party take-along, says Greenlee. “It’s quality stuff that’s wine-geeky enough to not be the everyday thing that Joe Guy is going to have at his house.”

Lights in August