Wine & Spirits: What Wines Should You Sip This Summer?

by Stephanie Mirah

Three sommeliers’ on what wines to drink this summer. 

Photo Credit Ashwin Muthiah

Instead of sitting and sulking at lost opportunities to leave your living room or backyard this summer, sip your sorrows away with the perfect summer wines as recommended by three sommeliers. Tony Lawerence is a graduate of the Napa Wine Academy and trained as a chef in Germany. Lawerence is the creator of Global Wine Chef in Philadelphia, Pa. Ashwin Muthiah is a Certified Level III Sommelier through the National Wine School and the founder of Personal Sommelier in D.C. Tonya R. Hengerer is a sommelier with a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and the owner and president of Everyday Sommelier based in Lynchburg, Va. From rosés to sparkling wines, the options for your backyard barbecues and happy hour Zoom calls are plentiful and bound to take you on a tasteful trip to faraway places like Alsace, France, or Casablanca Valley in Chile.

Courtesy of Tonya Hengerer

WL: When you think of “summer,” what wine(s) comes to mind? 

Lawerence: Rosé’s, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño’s, Sparkling Wines.

Muthiah: When I think of summer wines, I’m picturing wines you can enjoy cold and crisp that refresh and revitalize. Mostly, this means not red, but there are a handful of exceptions. You want lighter-bodied, higher-acidity wines in the summertime and often wines with bubbles. For whites, Gemischter Satz from Vienna, Austria or Assyrtiko from Santorini are both lovely and off the beaten path. Gemischter Satz is a field-blend, meaning that many different varietals are harvested and vinified together, as opposed to vinified separately and blended right before bottling. It’s more expressive of terroir that way, they say. Assyrtiko from Santorini is the epitome of summer wine because Santorini itself is in many ways the epitome of summer with its sandy soils, ocean views and white vistas. Rosés are great for summer too. Castello di Ama’s Purple Rose from Tuscany, Italy and Trapan’s C’è Non C’è (meaning “it’s there, it’s not there,” i.e. it’s there and then it’s gone because you drink it so fast) are both delightful. The latter has bubbles. For other sparkling, I love Villiera Tradition Brut from Stellenbosch, South Africa. It’s a Champagne-style wine and is delightful and affordable.

Hengerer: For me, when I think of “summer,” I think of wines from Alsace. Alsace is a wine region located in Eastern France along the Rhine River, which separates France and Germany. Alsace is mainly known for the following Noble grape varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurtztraminer– all white wine grapes. It is also known for Crémant d’Alsace–a sparkling wine made in the Méthode Champenoise (just like Champagne, but less expensive). In order to preserve the integrity of the aromas of these grapes, they are not blended with other grape varieties or aged in oak. These wines have intensely beautiful fruit and floral aromas and flavors characterized by notes of stone fruit, lychee fruit and roses. The terroir of this region also lends a wonderful minerality and refreshing brightness to these wines.

Riesling and Muscat are made in a dry style (no residual sugar) in Alsace, and single variety Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer are typically made in an off-dry style (small amount of residual sugar). However, these wines have such fantastic acidity, they are not perceived as cloyingly sweet. The combination of minerality, intense floral notes and refreshing acidity make any one of these wines a lovely aperitif or pairing with many kinds of cuisine.

Rosés are great for summer too. Castello di Ama’s Purple Rose from Tuscany, Italy and Trapan’s C’è Non C’è (meaning ‘it’s there, it’s not there,’ i.e. it’s there and then it’s gone because you drink it so fast) are both delightful.

Photo Credit Ashwin Muthiah

WL: What is a good wine for showcasing steak at a backyard barbecue? Burgers? 

Lawerence: Fruity red’s like Zinfandels, Petite Syrah’s and other Red Blends Like Lambrusco with a slight chill are great for outdoor BBQ.

Muthiah: For a backyard steak barbecue, you’ll want some tannins, which means either red or amber wine (amber/orange/skin-contact wine is wine made from white wine grapes fermented with the grape skins). Generally, I’d go red. Perhaps something young and fun like a beaujolais nouveau from Burgundy. For a burger barbecue, I’d go bubbles. I prefer beer with my burger, but if you’re going to go with wine, Glinavos’s Paleokerisio is a delicious semi-sweet, semi-sparkling, amber wine that comes in a crown-cap bottle. 

Hengerer: My answer, hands down, is the Rhône Valley. Many vineyards in this cooler wine region of the Northern Rhône are located on steep slopes next to the Rhône River between Vienne in the north and Valence in the South. This iconic wine region is mainly associated with the powerful red wines made from Syrah–a black grape variety that produces deeply colored wines with medium to high levels of tannin (gives astringent/drying sensation on gums and palate). Syrah has aromatic notes of smoke, black pepper and smoked meat. These wines are aged in both new and old oak depending on the style of the winemaker.

The vineyards of the Southern Rhône region are planted on flatter terrain than those of the Northern Rhône. The soils are comprised of large stones called galets that absorb the sun’s heat and warm the vineyard, helping the grapes to ripen. Southern Rhône is known for its complex blends of the black grape varieties of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre or GSM blends.

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Grenache dominates most of the red wines of this region; however, Syrah and Mourvèdre play important supporting roles by adding color and tannin. The wine styles of this region can range from light to medium-bodied wines that are fresh and fruity with low tannins to highly tannic, full-bodied red wines. New and old oak are both used in the aging process.

Whether you’re enjoying a Syrah (Côte Rôtie or Cornas) from Northern Rhône or a GSM blend (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) from Southern Rhône, the aromatic notes of smoke, black pepper spice and smoked meat will make these wines the perfect pairing with your barbecue.

WL: With stay at home recommendations due to COVID-19 still in place, what are good social-distancing wines for a virtual wine night over Zoom or FaceTime? 

Lawerence: Everything from roses to reds, it should be a time of learning and experiencing new wines.

Muthiah: I think it’s fun to try new things with people. Even if the “with people” is over a Zoom/FaceTime hang-out, it’s nice to have company when trying new things, and with COVID, I think it’s even more important. I’d recommend trying wines from Georgia the country.

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The history of wine begins in Georgia ~8,000 years ago, and they have a diverse, robust wine culture. Okro’s Wines and Iago’s Wines are great. There are 100s of Georgian producers’ wines available in the U.S. and dozens in DC.

Hengerer: I think Chardonnay is a fantastic grape variety to highlight for a virtual blind tasting party with friends via Zoom or FaceTime. My advice: Choose four to five bottles of Chardonnay from different wine regions around the world; such as, France, California, Australia, Chile and New Zealand. Place bottles in brown paper bags or wrap in aluminum foil. Next, taste them…first, without food; then, with food. Make sure to take notes regarding aromas and flavors as well as what you liked or didn’t like about each wine. Compare, contrast and discuss with your friends. You may rediscover Chardonnay as well as a wine region you didn’t even know you loved!

There’s nothing better than an oaky, buttery Chardonnay from California with lobster or buttered popcorn. And, if you’re looking for the perfect Chardonnay to pair with oysters or seafood in general, you can’t go wrong with Burgundy, France. I especially enjoy a steely, bright Chardonnay with great minerality and a hint of salinity from Chablis.

Here are a few (but not all) of the regions with a reputation of making high-quality Chardonnay: Burgundy, France (Chablis, Côte d’Or, or Mâconnais); Russian River Valley and Los Carneros in California; Adelaide Hills, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula in Australia; Gisborne and Marlborough in New Zealand; and Casablanca Valley in Chile.

Courtesy of Tonya Hengerer

WL: Instead of ice cream for dessert, what are some wine alternatives? 

Lawerence: Ruby Ports from Portugal, Moscato’s and Brachetto’s from Italy, German Late Harvest Rieslings or Canadian’s Ice Wines.

Muthiah: Sauternes or Tokaj are obvious options, but they tend to be pricey. Similarly good but less expensive is Monbazillac. The hallmark taste comes from “noble-rot” or botrytis, which causes the grapes to raisinate and become concentrated in flavor.

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Vintage port is decadent enough to substitute for dessert, but it’s not cheap either. Twenty-year tawny ports are more affordable and still quite decent.

Hengerer: I think wine is often the best ending for a dinner, especially a multiple course or heavy one. There are many options here. Of course, Port and Sherry wines are classic, and most of us have probably ordered them on occasion when dining at a restaurant. But, if you’re interested in something a bit different, Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG wines are fabulous and make an impressive finale!

Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG is made using the Passito method. This method is used in the Veneto region of Italy to increase structure and flavor concentration. The grapes are picked early while still high in acidity and dried inside in order to concentrate the sugars and flavors. Fermentation doesn’t begin until the winter months. The Recioto della Valpolicella is made from grapes that are so sweet the fermentation stops naturally. These sweet wines have beautiful aromas and flavors of red fruits. They are also full-bodied with high alcohol levels and medium to high tannins.

Although Recioto della Valpolicella is considered a sweet wine, it presents more as a well-integrated off-dry (some residual sugar) red wine with intense color, fruit and flavor. The acidity and alcohol balance the sugar, giving it an elegant finish. And, if you want to enjoy Recioto della Valpolicella with dessert, it pairs really well with chocolate.

Photo Credit Ashwin Muthiah

WL: What is your personal favorite wine and food combination? 

Lawerence: I love the classics and then pairing off of them like Maryland Lump Crab Cakes with Mosel Rieslings, Key Lime Pie with Ice Wine.

Muthiah: My favorite so far is Xinomavro (varietal) from Naoussa, Greece paired with lamb meatballs.

Hengerer: I love Champagne and sparkling wines. They are refreshing, pair beautifully with almost every kind of cuisine, and are usually somewhat lower in alcohol compared to most red and white wines–around 12%. Some people only consider Champagne and sparkling wines when celebrating special occasions. But, lately, I consider every day worth celebrating.

Many know that sparkling wine is only called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. However, there are many sparkling wines made throughout the world which employ the same method used in Champagne, France. These sparkling wines are made using the Traditional Method or Méthode Champenoise, where the last stage of fermentation is in the bottle. In France, sparkling wines made outside of Champagne are called Crémant; in Spain, these wines are referred to as Cava; and, in Italy, they are called Franciacorta–drier and less fruity than Prosecco. Often, these sparkling wines are available at a fraction of the cost of Champagne–a reason to celebrate in itself!

Because Champagne and sparkling wines have such beautiful, bright acidity, they are palate-cleansing and pair well with most cuisine, especially foods prepared with salt, butter, or cream. My personal favorite is Champagne and truffle popcorn. The acidity in the Champagne balances the richness of the truffle popcorn.

Since many of us are spending more time outdoors, why not consider a picnic? Another lovely pairing with sparkling wine or Champagne is fried chicken. Sparkling wine isn’t just for fancy dinners or special occasions. It transforms a simple dining experience into something special and lends a sense of occasion to any gathering. Why wait to celebrate?

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