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Four top tipples for summer

by William Campbell

The first rule for a summer wine is that it needs to be refreshing. High-scoring monster reds that warm the soul on a winter evening become plodding, heavy, alcoholic beasts on a sweltering day. Under conditions of heat and humidity, such big, bruiser wines leave us weary, rather than exhilarated.

The key ingredients for a good warm-weather match are higher acidity and less oak and tannin, which typically means that we’re browsing the white and rose sections of the wine list.

We recently polled the staff of several newly opened Tokyo restaurants with strong wine selections, asking for general summer drinking tips and specific recommendations. The most consistent piece of advice, and the second rule, if you like, for summer wine drinking is that bottles should be served at the correct temperature.

Emile Peynaud, vinous researcher extraordinaire and author of the definitive “The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation” (first published more than a decade ago), has shown that the same red wine can taste hot and thin at 22 C, supple and fluid at 18 C, and bitter and astringent at 10 C.

If you’re served a red that is too warm, by all means ask for an ice bucket. Similarly, if serving red at home, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution — a partially chilled red will quickly warm in the glass, but an overly hot wine will never cool once served. But for the peak of summer, perhaps the main advice is to shy away from big reds altogether.

Le Petit Tonneau

“Pink is the new black,” proclaimed Parisian native Nelson Surjon, executive general manager of the Le Petit Tonneau group, as he poured us a glass of his favorite rose at the outfit’s newly opened Le Petit Tonneau bistro in the center of Azabu Juban, Tokyo. While there are many insipid, flabby roses in the world (and no shortage of outright abominations — think White Zinfandel), this wasn’t one of them.

The Mas Cornet Rose (¥800/glass) is made by Abbe Rous from grapes grown in Collioure, a series of mountains which run directly into the Mediterranean just north of the French-Spanish border. The process used to make this wine is known as saignee (French for “bled”).

In order to increase the color and concentration of their red wines, some quality producers bleed off a small percentage of the juice from tanks of recently crushed grapes, which results in a higher ratio of darkly colored skins to juice during fermentation. This “excess” juice is used to make high-quality rose. This wine is mouthwateringly succulent, high in acid, and has great grip; a glass to potentially convert any antirose holdouts.

Nelson’s top white recommendation was the Blanc de Blanc Terrassous (¥800/glass), from Collioure’s nearby appellation of Co^tes du Roussillon. An interesting blend of 50 percent Grenache Blanc, 26 percent Vermentino and 24 percent Macabeo, its bright lemon and mineral notes give it the freshness to stand up nicely in the warmth of the open terrace, but at the same time it has enough roundness and depth to pair well with Le Petit Tonneau’s steak frites.

The bistro lists 70 wines, all French — an astounding 36 of which are available by the glass. Many of these are directly imported by their parent company, and they are available online as well at www.petitonneau.com

Coppola’s

Those in need of a California fix this summer should head to Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi. In addition to wearing the hats of film director and winemaker, Francis Ford Coppola is also a prolific restaurateur. He owns Cafe Zeotrope in San Francisco, Cafe Rosso in nearby Palo Alto, and he is co-owner, along with actors Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, of Rubicon — one of San Francisco’s top wine destinations. Those who have been to the new Midtown development may have spotted his latest addition — Coppola’s Vinoteca.

General Manager Syuntoku Katayama explained that the restaurant offers more than 120 Californian wines, including all 28 bottlings made under the Coppola wine-company umbrella. Ten Coppola wines are permanently available by-the-glass, including three of their value-oriented FC Presents wines (¥800/glass) and seven of their more upmarket Diamond Series bottlings (1,200 yen/glass).

Katayama’s top recommendation for summer is the Diamond Series Sauvignon Blanc (1,200 yen/glass), which has beautiful hints of zesty lime and hay in the nose, and bright, fresh acidity in the mouth. We liked it the best of all the Diamond Series wines that we tried, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the only wine that is county designated (Monterey), while the rest carry a basic California label.

The restaurant is laid out along two serpentine counters, which at first glance appears to be an extravagant use of space for Tokyo. Katayama explained that the intent was for their large wine staff (three sommeliers for only 40 seats) to be able to circulate behind each counter and have a leisurely chance to talk face to face with customers about the full wine list and the daily by-the-glass specials.

He also said that they will occasionally open a bottle at a customer’s request and pour it by-the-glass. So if there is something from the main list that you’d particularly like to try for summer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Aizbar

Our final summer-wine pick comes from our new candidate for world’s most obscure wine bar, bumping off the almost but not-quite-impossible-to-find Restaurant and Wine Cellar Davis in Tokyo’s Takanawa.

Located at the back of two blind alleys in the warren of restaurants outside of Meguro Station, lies Aizbar (tel. [03] 5434-0117), the culmination of owner Ai Eto’s lifelong dream to open her own place. With just eight seats, two wine fridges and no fixed menu, Eto explained that she can focus on whatever food and wine she thinks best match the moment.

One recent evening, she poured the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc bottling from organic pioneer Frog’s Leap (1,200 yen/glass). Even after a number of glasses, its ethereal mineral nose and citrus-like, mouth-tingling acidity left us happily recharged and ready to head boldly back into the hot summer night.

To share your summer wine recommendations, e-mail vinelandtalk@hotmail.com