Extreme conditions call for particular responses, and I can’t think of many situations more extreme than a Houston summer. With the next few months being balmy at best, our wine and food choices need to mitigate our climate as much as possible. The huge Amarone with osso bucco over risotto that made so much sense in December would likely give a guest pause in August.
Most people would probably opt for a bowl of ice cream washed down with some chilled Evian. Luckily, there are many menu and beverage choices that handily bridge the gap between these two options.
For a lot of the same reasons that most people prefer lemonade in the summer and egg-nog in the winter, less full bodied, crisper Chardonnays might be a better call during the summer than big, rich oaky-dokey Chardonnays. Chablis is a part of Burgundy that produces just this sort of lighter Chardonnay. Depending more on ripe fruit with good acid balance than oak for its style, Chablis is a perfect hot weather wine. Louis Latour 2000 Chablis ($13) is widely available, a good value and a perfect match for oysters on the half shell. A small squeeze of fresh lemon on the oysters will bring out the best in the wine. A lot of cocktail sauce with horseradish will bring out the best in the horseradish. Both scenarios are popular for a reason.
For people who need more oak with their Chardonnay, hot weather makes it more important than usual to have a commensurate amount of acid to keep the wine from seeming flaccid. Cambria 2001 Katherine’s Chardonnay ($18) is a good choice. It’s rich without being cloying, crisp with no troublesome thinness, and has lots of seasonally apropos tropical fruit. If you’re a fan of fruit sauces: pork loin with pineapple, shrimp with mango chutney, quail with cassis; this wine is a natural.
A beautiful, under-appreciated, lesser-known and undervalued white wine is Pinot d’Alsace. Colette Faller et ses filles Domaine Weinbach 2001 Clos des Capucins ($19) is a great example. Reminiscent of lemon cotton candy on the nose, the sweet lemon drop flavors continue on the palate (the wine is bone dry). It’s like adult lemonade. It’s perfect with seared or grilled sea scallops with a lemon-tarragon beurre blanc. Or, for that matter, cold boiled shrimp.
One of my favorite wines any time of year is Tavel, a pink, dry, highly alcoholic wine from the Rhône, in France. Its acidity, alcohol and unripe fruit make it engagingly refreshing, while its ripe fruit and tannins give it depth and interest. For a Rosé, it’s as macho as it gets. It’s perfect for any manner of Charcuterie: prosciutto, andouilles, pâtés with gherkins, ham on rye with a little mustard and a pickle … A great one is Château d’Aqueria 2001 Tavel ($14).
Now, on to some red wines for the summer – the same guidelines apply as with white wines. Acidity and fresh fruit count for more than oak, richness and complexity. Summer is time for the Beach Boys, not Mahler. Fiulot 2001 Barbera d’Asti ($12) from Piedmont in Italy fits the bill perfectly. On the nose, we have tons of unripe red fruit. On the palate, tightly focused berries with a pleasantly bitter finish complement anything from smoky bar-b-que with potato salad to salty grilled chicken with a Caesar salad.
Although hot weather generally calls for lighter foods, the appeal of a large grilled Porterhouse steak can’t be denied. But if it’s 100 degrees in the shade, I’m still not going to be up to the subtlety of a great old Bordeaux. How about a big, rambunctious but not at all cerebral Zinfandel? Seghesio 2001 Sonoma Zinfandel ($17) is just what the doctor ordered. It has the right amounts of lively fruit and friendly tannins, kept in line with a firm acid backbone to make any rich, grilled piece of beef taste better than ever.
So far I’ve talked about wine as an adjunct to summer food. How about wine as a summer beverage? How about Sangria? Kitty Bailey, General Manager of Abuso Catering Co. and no stranger to drinking and dining in Madrid, is a fan of this recipe: combine one bottle of simple Rioja such as Marqués de Cáceres 1999 Crianza Rioja ($10), 24 oz. of Sprite, 4 oz. of Spanish Brandy (el Presidente is fine), one thinly sliced orange, a handful of pitted Bing cherries, and two thinly sectioned white peaches in a punch bowl with ice. Let sit for one hour. Serve to friends on a hot day and don’t worry too much about the food.