Smiles of a Summer White
Choosing the ideal wine for seasonal drinking is a matter of appropriateness and simple pleasure.
To everything there is a season, the Book of Ecclesiastes reassures us, and that is especially true in the world of wine. I adore a full-bodied Amarone, that powerhouse dry red from Italy's Veneto region, but for me it is a quintessential fall and winter sensation, to be savored with a spicy game stew or, better yet, with an array of ripe odoriferous cheeses and warm roasted nuts. Similarly, the richness and complexity of top-of-the-line German Rieslings—the Trockenbeerenausleses (TBA), Beerenausleses, and Eisweins—remind me of the winter holidays, both because grapes for those sweet wines are harvested around that time of year and because a half bottle of TBA or Eiswein can cost as much as a generous Christmas present. But never is seasonal appropriateness more important than in the summer, when a pretentious wine selection can weigh down a meal and overwhelm the senses.
With today's perpetual availability of fruits and vegetables that used to be around only in summer, we tend to forget how remarkable, indeed unsurpassable, are locally grown, freshly harvested asparagus, corn, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, and melons—for me, the pinnacles of summer dining pleasure. Meals that are organized around them as they sequentially come into season, and rounded out with simply prepared fish or seafood, form the basis of our summer entertaining in the country. And that, of course, calls for white wines.
Though I'm an enthusiastic meat-eater, I go against the American grain by not grilling outdoors. I find that it requires too much last-minute attention after guests have arrived and is worrisomely subject to variables and mishaps. When I want to serve beef in the summertime I opt for a foolproof filet mignon, roasted in advance, presented cold with a creamy horseradish sauce, and paired with an appropriate Bordeaux. But that's never at lunch or during a heat wave, because of the warming effect that red wine has on the system. Otherwise it's white wines all the way—but with a world of them to choose from, that's hardly restrictive.
The Apéritif Imperative
One unusual summertime apéritif I like to offer is an elderflower fizz. I was introduced to this refreshing English concoction by the Picasso biographer John Richardson. It's one part Belvoir Elderflower Cordial—a traditional nonalcoholic juice made at Belvoir Castle—and two parts good, but not great, brut Champagne. (Moët White Star will do, but don't use prosecco, which is too soft to stand up to the elder essence.) John serves it on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass, but if ice in Champagne seems a barbarism, the liquids can also be chilled and poured into a proper flute. Elderflower juice, once popular as a homemade soft-drink mixer throughout northern Europe, has an elusive, slightly bitter, thoroughly intriguing taste, and combining it with Champagne provides a sophisticated alternative to the cliché mimosa. (Although the Belvoir brand is hard to find in stores in the States, it can be ordered online at www.kalustyans.com or from 800-352-3451.)
Champagne straight up is a perfect apéritif at any time of the year, of course, but because it's served icy cold it seems especially fitting from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Lately I've become a fan of Egly-Ouriet, a sparkler that last year was rated highest in a New York Times roundup of small-production, artisanal Champagnes. It's slowly been developing a cult following, and one can understand why: Egly-Ouriet is rich and complex, with a nutty flavor just right for whetting the appetite. Don't get me wrong; I stand in awe of the big, high-quality Champagne producers' ability to turn out tens of thousands of cases of a completely consistent, instantly identifiable product year in and year out. But in the same price range as the ubiquitous (though always enjoyable) Veuve Clicquot, Egly-Ouriet displays a more personal approach.
The same principles of matching wine with food pertain year round, and it's all about combining flavors that complement and enhance one another. In that respect, Sauvignon Blanc is the protean summer problem solver, given its ability to stand up to delectable seasonal foods that tend to kill other wines. I wouldn't consider pouring anything else with asparagus, and Sauvignon Blanc also holds its own against the revered but notoriously hard-to-accommodate artichoke. At the same time, I find Sauvignon Blanc more suited to the classic insalata caprese—sliced tomato, mozzarella, and basil—than any Italian wine, again because of its ability to answer back the strong fragrance and sharp tang of the herb. (For a slight twist, I prefer smoked mozzarella.)
I'm completely taken with a new Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand—The Crossings—which reconfirms my belief that that country is now producing some of the best, and certainly the most distinctive, wines of this variety anywhere. The Crossings winery was founded in the Awatere Valley of New Zealand's fabled Marlborough region in 1995, and two years ago its first wines were released to notable praise. The 2002 Sauvignon Blanc is superb: concentrated, crisp, and citrusy, with a flinty substructure reminiscent of the finest Chablis. I'd serve this with the earliest, tenderest asparagus—steamed, drizzled with clarified butter, and topped with three medium-boiled quail eggs, carefully freed of their shells but still runny at the yolk. (Need I remind you to avoid asparagus vinaigrette when serving a serious wine? The vinegar in the dressing will render the sturdiest vintage tasteless or worse.)
Even better than the regular Crossings 2002 Sauvignon Blanc is its 2002 Catherine's Run Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. At $25, it's 50 percent more expensive, but nonetheless a bargain for a wine this big, fully developed, and complex. I'd save the Reserve for a rich dish that can play off its size, such as fettucine in a tarragon cream sauce studded with chunks of lobster. (This, by the way, is a fine way to serve that most luxurious of seafoods without burdening your guests with the mess of cracking shells and digging out the meat.)
Firsts and Foremost
As with other fruits that are picked too early in order to be shipped afar, there's a colossal difference between out-of-season melons and the locally grown ones that are available everywhere in the summer. One familiar yet unbeatable pairing is meltingly ripe honeydew and true prosciutto di Parma (yes, it's expensive, but there's nothing like the original). This first course gives me an excuse to uncork one of my many German Rieslings, my favorite food wines, and the honeyed flavor of the melon and cured ham allows one to move up the sweetness ladder from a drier Kabinett to a Spätlese.
The already legendary 2001s have just about vanished at retail. (I advise you to scoop up any '01s designated Qualitätswein mit Prädikat that you may still run across.) The 2002 has been hailed as Germany's "second consecutive vintage of the century," but that's a bit of a stretch. I don't find it quite up to the 2001 Wunderjahrgang ("miracle vintage"), but 2002 was triumphant by any standard and once again a fantastic buy, as has long been the case for inexplicably underappreciated German wines, especially from the Mosel and Rheingau regions.
I can't speak highly enough of one lesser-known Mosel Riesling—the Meulenhof Riesling Spätlese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr. My wife and I like the 2001 so much that we had it poured at our 25th anniversary luncheon last June, with a first course of gravlax with dill sauce and cucumber salad. Our guests, among them several major wine mavens, raved. I also serve it with a cold seafood salad of my own improvisation: shrimp cooked in Zatarain's Shrimp & Crab Boil and cooled, then tossed with diced mango, blanched sugar snap peas, toasted slivered almonds, fresh mint, and a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. This is a deep but sprightly wine, with notes of pear and peach beautifully balanced by a mineral backbone. At $21, the 2002 vintage is an outright steal, and I'm laying down some in case the 2003 vintage doesn't make it a three-for-three roll for Germany's Meister vintners.
Their talented colleagues to the east in Austria have been attracting much-warranted attention lately, after several new Austrian restaurants in New York—Danube, Wallsé, and Café Sabarsky—successfully brought those formerly overlooked wines before a demanding, influential audience. The most fashionable of the Austrian whites is Grüner Veltliner, and it makes for lovely summer drinking. A particularly charming version is made by southern Austria's Nigl winery, and the 2002 vintage, like that in neighboring Germany, is exceptionally good. This is far from a big wine, but its fruit and flower notes will nicely complement an appetizer of smoked trout and transport you to a meadow near Salzburg for a few blissful minutes. The hills are alive with the taste of Nigl!
Main Course Marvels
Too many people tend to think of Italian wines in terms of reds, and thus know too little about the country's whites beyond generic Orvietos, Pinot Grigios, and Soaves. But there are many distinguished Italian whites that deserve wider recognition, like a robust Sicilian called Planeta La Segreta. This full-bodied blend of Grecanico, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier grapes exhibits a long, honeyed finish that is held in check by a firm minerality. It's a lock with corn-on-the-cob, seared tuna steaks, or grilled chicken—that is, anything you would have automatically paired with a Chardonnay a few years ago. At only $17 a bottle, the plentiful 2002 vintage ranks as good value for casual summer entertaining. La segreta means "secret," and it's been well kept for too long.
A lighter Italian white that is a terrific accompaniment to pasta primavera made with the freshest of summer vegetables is Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo, from the Campania region around Naples. This wine is based on a venerable variety of grapes grown in porous limestone soil (hence the Tufo) since the time the area was colonized by the ancient Greeks (hence the Greco). Sleek and food friendly, this is a worthy candidate for the summer luncheon table. Vitello tonnato would be a fitting juxtaposition, but go easy on the capers, a surfeit of which can undermine any white except the seemingly impervious New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
And then we come to France, a universe unto itself of spectacular whites of every description. But apply some caution: there is something overreaching, not to say decadent, about opening a killer white Burgundy like Corton-Charlemagne or Chassagne-Montrachet at a time of year when informality (however studied) should be the rule. Save that unctuous Condrieu for an autumnal pork roast and that big Alsatian Tokay Pinot Gris for the Veau Prince Orloff that takes an entire day to assemble from volume one of the insanely labor-intensive Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In June, July, and August you should go easy, but that doesn't mean that you have to settle for watery Sancerres or ennui-inducing Pouilly-Fuissés and Pouilly-Fumés.
Ever on the lookout for yet another cold seafood salad for outdoor lunches, I was delighted to rediscover the classic avocado and crabmeat mimosa, often served to John and Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House by their French chef, René Verdon. His easy recipe can be found, along with other nostalgic Camelot favorites, in Letitia Baldridge's In the Kennedy Style (Doubleday, 1998). Verdon suggests serving it in a coupe Champagne glass, providing a new use for the open-mouthed stemware that we long ago banished in favor of flutes.
This seafood salad I would pair with Louis Jadot's Beaune-Bressandes, a premier cru of memorable freshness and concentration, though not overpowering magnitude. The 2002 Burgundies are beginning to show as an outstanding vintage, and Jadot's unassuming and impressive Beaune-Bressandes may be one of the best of the lot. Regrettably, it will only appear on the market this fall, but I'd put in an advance order now to make sure of having a supply on hand for next summer.
Finally, if pressed to choose my Platonic ideal of a white Bordeaux for summer dining, it might well be the pure and elegant Château Couhins-Lurton Pessac-Léognan. This 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc is a relatively light wine, especially in contrast to New Zealand's blockbusters, but it demonstrates that character and authentic terroir have nothing at all to do with heft. Beautifully self-contained, Couhins-Lurton, a grand cru classé Graves, would be glorious with a delicate preparation like cold poached turbotin en gelée.
The great pity of the summer wine story is that bivalves ought not be consumed from May through August, months without an "r." Oysters and scallops, increasingly threatened by environmental problems in coastal regions worldwide and therefore all the more precious these days, seem to cry out almost audibly for white wines, from an astringent Chablis for the former to a redolent Madeira for the latter. Of course, the good news is that after the summer always comes the fall.
An Estival Festival
Summertime, and the drinking is easy. Forgo the temptation to deploy big-gun wines to impress your guests, for not only are massive flavors out of sync with the season, but with so many wonderful, affordable whites being made worldwide, you can rise far above mundane Meursaults and insipid Soaves for $50 or less. Here is a sampler of some in-progress summer romances of mine:
2000 CHATEAU COUHINS-LURTON PESSAC-LEOGNAN This understated grand cru classé Graves presents a master class in a bottle. One sip and you'll know why 79-year-old André Lurton reigns among Bordeaux vignerons. Serve it with something equally subtle and learn. $43.
2002 THE CROSSINGS SAUVIGNON BLANC and 2002 CATHERINE'S RUN RESERVE SAUVIGNON BLANC This fledgling winery's impressive second-ever vintage establishes young wine maker George Elworthy as a rising star in New Zealand's marvelous Marlborough country. His Reserve is a true knockout. $16 and $25.
N.V. EGLY-OURIET BRUT TRADITION CHAMPAGNE Many people are scared by Champagnes they've never heard of, sticking to tried-and-true labels that deliver quality every time. But take a guaranteed flier on this nutty, yeasty, unfiltered winner from an esteemed boutique operation. $45.
2002 FEUDI DI SAN GREGORIO, GRECO DI TUFO Feudi often racks up 90-plus scores for its grand, gorgeous reds, but its crisp Greco di Tufo, made from an ancient grape variety, is among the most pleasant and easy-to-pair of Italian whites for summer drinking. Fragrant, fruity, and flinty all at once. $30.
2002 LOUIS JADOT BEAUNE-BRESSANDES Though it won't arrive until fall, this stylish premier cru Beaune is well worth laying down for next summer. The Les Bressandes vineyard is sited on top of a disused quarry, which imparts a clear mineral character, and the finish goes on and on. $50.
2002 JOSEF NIGL GRÜNER VELTLINER, KREMSER FREIHEIT Thoroughly delightful and an excellent introduction to the undersung wines of Austria, this dry, refreshing white would be delicious with a thin onion tart served at room temperature. Nigl, a highly respected maker, also produces a full range of bigger, more ambitious wines. $18.
2002 PLANETA LA SEGRETA BIANCO You can almost taste the sun of Sicily in this intense but well-balanced blend of four white varieties, including the indigenous Grecanico. A welcome alternative to monotonous 100 percent Chardonnay, La Segreta exploits that grape as an effective counterpoint. $17.
2002 MEULENHOF RIESLING SPÄTLESE, WEHLENER SONNENUHR I could rest my case for the position that German Rieslings are the wine world's best buys on this gem alone, full of fruit and mineral. Since taking over the family business in 1990, Stefan Justen has brought this small Mosel winery to new heights. $21.