Though it's still June, many parts of the country feel as though they're well into summer already, suffering screaming temperatures. While these balmy evenings are definitely the time to drink light, fresh whites, I'm loath to give up red wine.
Big, heavy reds are flabby and cloying when served too warm, and cooling them down stiffens their tannins, making them hard and unpleasant. Thinner, lighter red wines are the ticket during the summer months. They are best served with a slight chill on them, they've got bright acidity that makes them good with food, they're low in alcohol, and their zesty aromatics are refreshing.
We don't have a lot of obvious choices in the light red department, other than Beaujolais. To help broaden your summer red wine experience, here are four obscure red grapes that make perfect summer wines.
We think of hot, dry climates as producing heavy red wines, but that's not always the case. Nerello comes from Sicily. But it's grown high on the slopes of Mount Etna, where cooler temperatures and more humid air prevail. While the grape can produce richer, more alcoholic red wines that can age, it also makes translucent, complex reds that smell of fresh cherries and earth (and are cheaper). The 2009 Antichi Vinai Il Mascalese is an example of an inexpensive, gossamer version, while the 2007 Vini Biondi Etna Rosso "Outis" is still light but has much more depth and complexity.
Another Sicilian special, Frappato has been known mainly as a blending grape in a wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria, in which it's mixed with the stouter Nero d'Avola. But in the last few years, it's become fashionable in some wine circles to drink Frappato as a solo wine, in which its flavors of wild strawberries and mulberries are backed with notes of pepper and herbs. It's terrific with fish, bright tomato sauces and salsa, as well as salumi and olives. The wine doesn't even need food, though, as it can be sipped slightly chilled as an apéritif on summer evenings or at lunch. Arianna Occhipinti is a big name in Frappato, as are the wineries COS and Valle dell'Acate.
In Spain's northwestern corner is a lush, green region called Bierzo, contrasting Spain's typical brownish-red landscape. Bierzo grows an unusual grape called Mencía (men-THEE-a, as the Castilian Spanish lispingly pronounce it). The origins of this grape are a mystery, and no one can really tell what varieties it might be related to. But it can make brilliantly focused reds without having to be tannic or heavily extracted. The color is often reddish purple, and the lovely suggestion of black pepper makes this wine nice with thinner, lean cuts of meat (like flank steak), right off the grill. This inexpensive version is great with a slight chill.
Just east of Burgundy is a little French region known as the Jura that has lately been garnering interest from sommeliers for its unusual vin jaune (yellow wine) and its distinctive red from the grape Poulsard. Thin-skinned, Poulsard tends to make very pale, delicate reds that are vulnerable to oxidation, meaning that their transparent red hue in their youth quickly gives way to a soft salmon color. But the wine can have superbly complex, earthy aromas backed by notes of strawberry and raspberry. It's absolutely stunning with chicken, squab, and other poultry. Jacques Puffeney is one of the top producers of the region, and is pretty easy to find at good wine shops.