Summer is undoubtedly the most challenging season for wine drinkers. As April and May give way to June and July, the range of agreeable wines grows increasingly limited. I'm rarely inclined, for example, to reach for a warm, robust Châteauneuf-du-Pape when the asphalt is melting, and while I wouldn't turn down a glass of Haut-Brion in August, I'd much rather have it in November.
It is not just that our taste for wine is influenced by the weather. The way wines taste is influenced by the weather. Heat is the enemy of most high-end wines: It can kill them in the bottle (a wine exposed to excessive heat will often taste of baked or stewed fruits), and it can also ruin them at the table. I was in Burgundy during the record heat wave two years ago. My common sense evidently compromised by the soaring temperatures, I decided one Saturday afternoon that the al fresco dinner my wife and I had planned for that evening required a special wine, so I coughed up $100 for a bottle of the 1998 Comte de Vogue Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru. I'd had the wine before (on someone else's dime), and it was terrific. But on that night, in that sauna, it refused to sing. Sitting on the table, it turned warm and shapeless; exiled to the fridge to cool off for a few minutes, it turned hard and surly. The wine was meant to please us; we couldn't seem to please it.
There are, however, a number of light, refreshing wines appropriate for summer, and many of them are dirt cheap. Rosés, for instance, are getting some much-deserved play these days. (Because of their pink color, they were long associated in the minds of many American wine drinkers with treacly white zinfandel.) While the best rosé on the market, Domaine Tempier, is sadly overpriced—a bottle can cost north of $25—a number of excellent ones from France and Spain can be had for between $10 and $15. In particular, look for the rosés imported by Kermit Lynch (he imports Tempier but also offers a number of less-expensive rosés that are nearly as good), Neal Rosenthal, Robert Kacher, and Eric Solomon/European Cellars. The importer's name can usually be found on the back of the bottle.
For summer whites, France's Loire Valley is the place I generally turn: Sancerres, Pouilly Fumés, and Muscadets are just the kind of crisp, thirst-quenching wines that parched mouths crave. As reds go, I'm partial to Beaujolais, which I drink lightly chilled, as is the habit in France. Less-expensive Rhones—Cotes-du-Rhones, St. Josephs, and Crozes-Hermitages—also do well with a little time on ice or in the fridge. Of course, there are days during any summer when the heat is so bad that wine is hardly worth the bother, and for such occasions, there is a simple answer: beer.
Here are eight good wines for beaches and barbecues:
Domaine Tempier Rosé 2004, $28 (France)
Egregiously overpriced, but thoroughly delicious to drink, especially if someone else is buying. Like biting into a peach, right down to the pit—there's no mistaking the predominant flavor here. Rich and spicy, with considerable heft. Yet more evidence that 2004 was a great vintage for rosés.
Commanderie de Peyrassol Rosé 2004, $15 (France)
Many 2004 rosés are unusually deep in color; this one is an exceedingly pale salmon-pink. Very peachy nose, and fairly smoky, too. Tart stone fruit flavors in the mouth, with good structure and a nice, spicy bite. Find a pool, find some lobster salad, drink this wine.
Bodegas Muga Rioja Rosado 2004, $10 (Spain)
Spain also did well with rosés in 2004, and the Muga rosé is particularly sublime. It has peach and candied-apple aromas, along with a distinctly yeasty note. Very mellow, but with good acidity and an underlying verve about it. A screaming steal for the price.
Dupeuble Beaujolais 2003, $10 (France)
Dupeuble is always cheap and always good. This one is light-bodied, with tart cherry flavors and tangy acidity. An hour in the fridge will make it even more refreshing. The ideal picnic wine.
Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet 2003, $9 (France)
A nice blast of lemon, chalk, green apples, and crushed rocks greets the nose. Not as crisp as Muscadets typically are, but 2003 was an atypically hot vintage, which can make for fuller wines. Still, the citrus flavors and acidity are pleasantly bracing.