Perfect Summer Reds

Paul Blow

It’s mid-June, the veritable front porch of summer. Just two days ago I was relaxing, bare feet in the grass, at my in-laws’ place in rural western Massachusetts. As the mosquitoes got ready to pounce, our conversation turned to great summer wines. Most of the talk centered on whites and rosés, the stereotypical wines of summer. My father-in-law noted poetically how he loved the moment when the color of a rosé, like the salmon-hued Tavel we were drinking, matched the precise orange-pink color of the sunset. I couldn’t disagree with him, but I also pointed out that, in all the rosé hype, what gets lost is the unavoidability of red wine.

Few people ever talk about great summer reds, but what else are you going to put with all that meat that’s coming off the grill? Generally, people believe that summer reds must be light. Or they think they’ve got to be heavy, simple, fruity “grilling” wines like Zins and Petite Syrahs. I disagree with both assertions.

The most important factor for a good summer red is that it be refreshing. It needs good acidity and a splash of fresh, nonjammy fruit. A helpful criterion is: Can the wine be served with a slight chill? The chill test excludes most big reds, which tend to be very tannic—tannic wines become hard and more astringent if they’re served too cold. Also, I’m not really a fan of the famous combination of Zinfandel and barbecue. Zins are usually highly alcoholic, and barbecue is often a bit spicy. The combination of heat plus alcohol is combustible in the mouth, blasting out the enjoyment of both food and wine.

Most light wines do work as summer reds, but not all. Pinot or Dolcetto—two wines commonly held up as summer reds—can be light in body but still too tannic to be enjoyed when served on the cool side. Here are a few summer red suggestions that have one other nice feature in common: They’re all $15 or less.

Beaujolais is an obvious pick, and this lighter, fruitier wine made with Gamay in northeastern France indeed makes a good summer red. But you’ve got to stay with the simpler wines. Beaujolais-Villages (made from a blend of villages and vineyards) take a chill better than Cru (made from vineyards in one single village, and often denoting a more serious wine). The 2007 Louis Tête fits the bill: smooth, easy, delicious cold, and great with everything from grilled fish to Vietnamese.

One of my favorite recent discoveries is the 2007 Scaia Rossa from Tenuta Sant’Antonio of Italy’s Veneto region. It’s made from the Corvina grape, the most important cog in more famous wines from the region, like Amarone. Another bargain at just $10 a bottle, the Scaia Rossa delivers cherry and raspberry flavors with a nice touch of earth and bramble. It’s light in body but has good concentration and intensity. And it will definitely take a chill or—gasp!—even an ice cube on a hot afternoon.

Wine doesn’t only have to be light-bodied to be a good summer choice. Sometimes—say, if you’re eating steaks from the grill—you’ll need something strong enough to handle the food. But a lot of red wines won’t work that well. Instead of a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or a towering Shiraz, I like to go with a Cabernet Franc from Chinon in France’s Loire Valley, such as the 2006 Domaine de Beauséjour. The wine is medium-bodied with deep, dark notes of cassis, graphite, black cherry, and mint. Its tannins are fine and not too strong, and it has moderate alcohol. Try it with a grilled flank steak and chimichurri sauce—it’s a perfect match and especially enticing at only $15 a bottle.

The 2006 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from La Valentina is another bigger-bodied summer red. Made from the Montepulciano grape, the wine has that juicy gusto the reds in this region are known for, but also a refined tannic profile that makes it a little more lithe and elegant than the typical Abruzzo red. This, not Zinfandel, is the wine I would have with dry-rubbed Texas-style brisket, or even with grilled leg of lamb. And, yes, it’s delicious just at cellar temperature or even a little colder (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit).

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.