In the world of wine, rosé has come to hog the American summer like a clingy neighbor on your chaise lounge.
Stroll into any summer yard party, outdoor wedding, or lawn concert, check out the wine glasses held in manicured hands, and you’ll see more pink than at a prep school reunion.
Now, nothing against rosé per se. Fine examples abound. But those bracingly crisp bottles from Provence and quality Spanish rosados are often lost in a salmon-colored sea of insipid, consumer-baiting quaffers chosen more on price than merit. “$9.99? I’ll take three!” When summer ends, the rosé craze is packed away until next year. It’s Beaujolais Nouveau, déjà vu.
In terms of taste—in both its forms—breaking the mold with good wine always beats going with the flow of mediocre bottles. Delicious white wines, born for summer refreshment, huddle on shelves in favor of mass-produced rosés that bring little to a perspiring party, aside from a splash of color.
And who ever said you can’t drink Cabernet Sauvignon in summer? Certainly, 100-degree, prison-riot heat and an inky-rich, alcohol-laced red aren’t the ideal combination. But there’s a vast, wonderful world of lighter, fresher reds that remains largely overlooked as the mercury climbs. They occupy a sliding scale of familiarity, from trusty Pinot Noir to Italy’s fast-rising Barbera from the towns of Alba or Asti.
Well, enough of the seasonal monomania. Carve out a space for these warm-weather bottles farther along the color spectrum, most party-friendly at under $20. Just keep that pesky neighbor from guzzling more than his share.
Bodegas Naia Verdejo Rueda 2013
Spain’s ancient Rueda region has staged a comeback on par with that of Matthew McConaughey. Its spotlight shines on the white verdejo grape (pronounced “ver DAY ho”) whose sassy, citrusy flavors—largely at bottom shelf prices—allow you to crack open a second bottle with zero guilt. The Bodegas Naia is a signature rendition of the palate-pleasing style, and it's a top value. $13
Domaine Savary Chablis “Selection Vielles Vignes” 2011
Tired of same-old Chardonnay? Drink Chablis instead—and not the generic box swill that has sullied the Chablis name. The (relatively) affordable expression of Chardonnay in France’s Burgundy is the ideal splurge to elevate your best seafood dishes: Its incredible stony, briny seashell flavors are distinctive to Chablis and exactly no place else. Founded in Maligny in 1984 by husband and wife Olivier and Francine Savary, Domaine Savary produces a quintessential hierarchy of Petit Chablis, Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru, including the midpriced Vielles Vignes. $28
Cameron Hughes Lot 505 Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills) 2012
For red wine lovers, a change to shorts and loafers often means a switch to equally lighter-bodied but still luscious Pinot Noir. But finding reasonably priced examples of this famously delicate, low-yield grape has become a quest. The quaint Santa Rita Hills, north of Santa Barbara, Calif., became a hotbed after its star turn in the movie Sideways, yet its rich-and-structured Pinots remain a good deal, compared with Napa-Sonoma. That deal gets even better from Cameron Hughes, the innovative American négociant who cuts deals with top growers to produce his cost-cutting wines: Sourced from extreme, windswept sites above the Santa Ynez River, the Lot 505 is a $25 Pinot that drinks like a $40 bottle, a brawny, leather-scented hunk infused with ripe plum and blueberry. $25
St. Urbans-Hof QbA Mosel Riesling 2013
Riesling is another wine that’s been unfairly slagged in some quarters. But give good Riesling a chance and you’ll be invited to a perfect summer marriage of dry and sweet—but still snappy and acidic, not cloying like so much rosé. Whether from Germany’s Mosel River or the Alsace in France, Riesling also cools the palate to pair beautifully with spicy backyard food. St. Urbans-Hof’s Mosel is a lip-smacking blend of honeyed apricot, floral, and raisin flavors, elegant and just a touch sweet. $15
Domaine Cedrick Bardin Pouilly-Fumé 2013
If French Sancerre is too expensive to pour poolside, shoot east across the Loire River for Pouilly-Fumé, the more accessible take on sprightly Sauvignon Blanc. The “Fumé” translates to “smoke,” referring to the gunflint aroma that wafts from the local wines. That mineral complexity stands in contrast to the full-on lemon-lime attack of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Cedrick Bardin’s version is as bright and balanced as a Motown harmony, with grass and grapefruit flavors. $21
Cantine Sant’Agata “Baby” Barbera d’Asti
The Barbera grape, finally escaping the shadow of kingly, Nebbiolo-based Barolos and Barberescos of Italy’s Piedmont region, is one of my favorite summer reds: bright, ruby-red and tannic, with a brash acidity that slices through barbecue and other rich foods. But with big name Barberas from Alba or Asti shooting to $30 and more, Cantine Sant’Agata’s “Baby” is delicious and affordable enough to delight an army of thirsty guests. $13
Erste + Neue Weissburgunder-Pinot Bianco 2013
The hills are definitely alive in the Alto Adige, Italy’s northernmost growing region in the limestone-rich Dolomites, whose wines reflect the region’s effortless blending of German and Italian culture. Erste + Neue, an up-and-coming wine collective, makes some dandies, including a straw-yellow Pinot Bianco (or Weissburgunder auf Deutsch) that’s all herbs and Granny Smith apples, a mountain meadow in a glass. $15
Tissot Crémant du Jura “Extra Brut” NV
Summer weddings and celebrations may call for champagne, but not necessarily at $100 a literal pop. Enter the Jura, a once-isolated backwater near the Swiss border in France, which makes some of the world’s most distinctive and unusual wines. “Crémant” designates seven French sparkling wines grown outside of Champagne, including Crémant du Jura, classified only since 1995 and made from at least 70 percent Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Trousseau. The Tissot family’s deep-gold sparkler is a steal at $25, a yeasty burst of lively bubbles, tangy fruit, and a dry backbone. Flattered guests will whisper that you broke the bank on vintage champagne. Let them. $25
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