Some reds were born to be cool
YOU’VE dusted off the cooler and cleared a rack in the fridge for the cool beverages of summer. Now what do you stock them with? Light beers, for sure, not the calorically challenged type, but the Pilseners, the Weissbiers, even a can of Tecate or two for emergencies. You’re backing these up with light, crisp, high-acid white wines and refreshing and cheerily hued roses from Spain and the south of France.
But don’t neglect to reserve a little real estate for red wine. There is an entire world of light red wines that benefit from a little chill. Even just a few degrees can make the right red wine taste delightful, refreshing and texturally transformed. And they’re terrific for summer.
With certain exceptions, chillable red wines come from chillier climes. Many of these are in Europe, and most hug the continent’s midsection, surrounding the Alps in the west and south. This means eastern France, northern Italy and Austria. While Beaujolais, Bardolino and Dolcetto are the best-known examples, cool reds also include an intriguing selection of lesser-known styles. It’s a great reason to explore and try something new: a Zweigelt from Austria, perhaps, or an Arbois from France’s Jura region.
Cool, not cold
THE ideal chillable red is light-bodied, low in tannin with higher acidity and brighter fruit, attributes shared with many white wines. No red wine, however, should be served as cold as a white wine. Too cool and the wine tastes lifeless. If your ideal white is chilled in an hour, a red will approach its ideal temperature in a half-hour, maybe less. In most cases you want just a hint of cool.
Above all, they must be low in tannin. Your average Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah or domestic Pinot Noir has a little too much structure to ice down. Tannins, especially oak tannins, tend to feel brittle and hard in the mouth if too cold. You don’t need to avoid all tannin, but generally speaking, the more tannin in the wine, the shorter the chill time.
Finally, be aware that a chilled lighter red can start off a little mute. But as the wine acclimates, it’s as if it wakes up: Taciturn aromatics seem to leap out of the glass, it grows softer, more supple, and the wine takes on dimension and charm.
Because France partly wraps itself around the Alps, it has the most wines to fit the category. In Alsace, the mountainous northern region that borders Germany, some producers make a small amount of Pinot Noir, typically in quite a different style than those made in Burgundy and wonderful served after a half-hour in the ice bucket. Alsatian Pinot Noir is nearly always lighter in body than Burgundy, with a bright red berry character and a light, peppery bite of fruit tannin; it’s rare for these wines to touch an oak barrel unless it’s old and neutral. Ask your wine retailer for suggestions; store selections vary. One to look for comes from winemaker Jean-Pierre Dirler; it’s a crisp, clean red that takes well to a chill.
South and a little east of Alsace is the relatively unknown region of the Jura, which is due east of Burgundy in the foothills of the Alps. Its northern tip constitutes a subregion known as Arbois, where many of the best reds from Jura are grown. These are made mostly from Poulsard, a large, thin-skinned grape variety that thrives there and yields a pale and frisky red.
The wines of Jacques Puffeney, known as “the Pope of Arbois,” are imported to Southern California fairly consistently. A pale garnet in the glass, Puffeney’s Arbois is lively and fresh, with an almost juniper scent accenting bright red berry fruit, and just a kiss of tannins.
Another style to be on the lookout for is Gamay Noir, either from Beaujolais or Savoie, a region south of the Jura and just west of Beaujolais. Gamay Noirs from either place are delightful chilled; the wines from the more mountainous Savoie probably have a bit more structure and tannin, but both are juicy enough for a delightful chilled drink.
Finally, of the French regions, the Loire Valley is the main exception to the rule of Alpine proximity, but not to the prevalence of cool-climate grapes in chillable red wines. There are several subregions in the Loire that specialize in Cabernet Franc, the Loire’s great red wine and an ideal candidate for summer drinking. Of these subregions, the silkiest wines, the most elegant, and the best for chilling down are from Saumur-Champigny, a limestone-laden region that offers some of France’s most seductively textured wines. Saumur-Champigny has a gorgeous middle weight and a smoky, herbal scent that is heightened by a little chill. Look for producers such as Domaine Filliatreau, Domaine de Nerleux and Chateau du Hureau.
The northern border of Italy fans like an open hand across the southern border of the Alps, and each of its western and eastern flanks, the Piedmont and the Alto Adige (and regions to its south) offer reds that take a chill well. Of course, northern Italy is home to the Lambrusco and Brachetto, two sparkling wines that sit on the fence between red and rose. But there are more substantial alternatives that offer refreshment as well.
In the northwest, Dolcetto, the early-ripening grape of the Piedmont, fits the bill. Tight-knit, aromatic and with a pleasingly chewy texture, Dolcettos tend to have quite a lot of structure but with fine tannins, so they take well to a discreet chill. The Dolcettos from Alba and Asti will serve well, but there is a third subregion called Dogliani, whose wines are perhaps the most complex and interesting expressions of the grape. Look for Dolcetto di Dogliani from producers Pecchenino and Anna Maria Abbona.
From Alto Adige, the Austria-adjacent portion of Italy also known as South Tyrol or Sudtirol, look for wines labeled Santa Maddalena (or its German equivalent from this bilingual region, St. Magdalener), a wine made primarily with the variety Schiava. Light, peppery, fragrant and mildly spicy, it has a smoky palate that is faintly reminiscent of speck, the pungent smoked ham of that region. One of the more delightful is the inexpensive Griesbauerhof, from Georg Mumelter.
South of the Alto Adige is Bardolino, a neighbor to Valpolicella. Bardolino wines are usually lighter and less structured than those of Valpolicella, but are blended with similar material: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. With a fragrance of wild berries, Bardolino has a sweet strawberry fruit flavor that finishes with a tart, red berry burst. Several large-producer brands are on the market, but it’s best to look for a dedicated producer, such as the small, family-owned Cavalchina winery in the Veneto.
Austria excels in high-altitude wines. The country is rightfully known for its whites, but its reds, particularly from southern regions such as Burgenland, have earned some respect, if not much notoriety, in the last 10 years or so. Cool temperatures require early-ripening varieties that like the fairly gripping Blaufrankisch (also known in Germany as Blauer Limberger and Lemberger), St. Laurent, which is thought to be a variant of Pinot Noir, and Zweigelt, which is a hybrid of the two.
Of these, the latter two are best with a chill. A good St. Laurent, like Sattler’s 2003 Reserve, can be very elegant, but you can also find less pricey, oak-neutral bottlings from co-ops such as Zantho, which produces both a St. Laurent and a Zweigelt, silky, red-fruited wines with just a teeny bite of tannin.
WHILE you’ll net a number of new summer-friendly wines while browsing your wine shop’s shelves with these recommendations in mind, your fallback should always be Beaujolais, France’s most chillable red. The last two vintages, 2004 and 2005, are not to be missed for exuberantly fruity wines that take especially well to a chill. (Beaujolais Nouveau is greatly improved as well.)
And recently, an American entry has hit the market: a true-to-form Gamay Noir, the grape of Beaujolais, from of all places, California.
Steve Edmunds is a Bay Area winemaker who makes wines mostly from Rhone varieties. They’re notably subtle and unflashy, not an easy road for a winemaker to take in these days of obvious over-the-top, high-alcohol jam pots. A few years ago Edmunds got it into his head to make a Beaujolais-style Gamay -- a wine he loves to drink, and figured he’d love to make -- and he managed to persuade a grower in the Sierra Foothills to plant a small amount on a very high-elevation spot (3,300 feet). He released his first vintage in 2004.
At the time it was released, it seemed like a fool’s errand. A few places in much cooler Oregon, such as Willakenzie Estate and Brick House, made tiny amounts of Gamay Noir with some success. But in California? How could a 98-pound Gamay compete in a world of weighty California reds?
Thankfully, Edmunds tends to go his own way, and that’s good for all of us. This is a delightful wine, fresh as a bowl of ripe raspberries, just picked. It will not be mistaken for Beaujolais -- it’s got a bit more oomph than efforts there -- but it’s still lighter than most California reds, a tap dancer in a sea of army boots, and it’s beautiful chilled. Try it on the patio, with friends, a little sun, charcuterie and the season’s finest peaches, in that order.
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Light reds that take to chilling
THESE lighter red wines best served chilled are listed from least to most tannic; chilling times and serving temperatures should follow that progression. Chill the lightest wines the longest, so that serving temperatures range from 45 degrees for the Arbois to just a bit cool for the Saumur-Champignys.
2003 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Rouge Poulsard. Simple, bright, fresh and peppery, with a fragrance like wild raspberries, it has a mildly flinty texture accenting forward, red fruit flavors. Available at Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454 and (800) 76WINEX; Woodland Hills Wine Co. in Woodland Hills, (818) 222-1111, about $20.
2003 Domaine Dirler Pinot Noir. Oak-free, pure fruit Pinot from Alsace, with aromas of spice and red cherry, a juicy, red-cherry mid palate and brisk acids. Available at Wine House in Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, $27.
2003 Anna Maria Abbona “Sori dij But” Dolcetto di Dogliani. A fresh scent of blueberries and white pepper, with fresh, forward fruit flavors and just a hint of tannin. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa (800) 331-3005, $13.
2004 Cavalchina Bardolino. It has a lightly smoky scent accompanying a silky strawberry flavor, with lively acids. Tannins are light and finely wrought. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, (800) 331-3005, $13.
2004 Georg Mumelter Griesbauerhof St. Magdalener Classico. Peppery and light with aromas of wild strawberries and dried beef, its bright strawberry flavors are marked by soft-grip tannins, with a smoky finish. Available at Wine House and at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, $13.
2004 Edmunds St. John “Bone-Jolly” Gamay Noir. Edmunds’ wine is generally darker and a bit richer than its inspiration, Beaujolais. But it’s equally charming, with exuberant red raspberry fruit, light tannins and refreshing acidity. Available at Wine House, $15.
2003 Sattler St. Laurent Reserve. Silky and elegant, with hints of smoke and dark red cherry. A bit more peppery than Pinot Noir, from which this grape is said to derive. At Wine House, about $27.
2004 Zantho Zweigelt. Bright, peppery and slightly more tightly focused than St. Laurent, this co-op wine has a bright red cherry scent and spicy, peppery tannins. At Wine House, $13; the 2003 is at Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024; and Woodland Hills Wine Co., $13.
2003 Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny. Delightful Cabernet Franc with just a hint of smoked herb scent and flavors of purple fruit, like lingonberry. Very fine and silky tannins. At Mission Wines in South Pasadena, (626) 403-9463, about $14.
2003 Domaine de Nerleux Saumur-Champigny. Made from old vines, this wine shows off the herbal expression of Cabernet Franc, with aromas of thyme and a lean, red-berry fruit flavor. Available at Silverlake Wine and Woodland Hills Wine Co., about $15.
-- Patrick Comiskey