With Japan’s summer still parching throats as it turns its muggy-hot head toward autumn, let’s turn our thoughts, and our thirsts, to wines for refreshment as the heat lingers on.
In my antiwine-snob, wine-populist way, I’m tempted to say that on very hot days any well-made young dry wine, red or white, will do rather well if it’s suitably chilled. In fact, although that tends to hold true in general, it isn’t all quite that simple. Some dry and semi-dry white wines wouldn’t deliver their full flavor if over-chilled, and what’s over-chilled for one wine may not be for another.
Fruitiness, sometimes confused with sweetness, needs the right temperature to convey its full flavor. For certain white wines that could be 12 or even 13 C. If lower, the wine’s coldness alone may dominate; not sensible at all. If above all you want to slake your hot-weather thirst with a well-chilled wine, the logical choice is one chilled to 9 or 10 C. That applies to fairly dry, acidic whites, to roses, and to young reds suitable for chilling, such as Beaujolais Nouveau, trollinger and any number of others.
Common sense says you shouldn’t chill a well-aged, well-structured claret, for example, or elegant late-harvest rieslings such as auslese. You’d lose too much from their subtle, honeyed flavor.
Now, imagine yourself sitting outdoors on a hot day, on your patio or veranda or at an outdoor cafe, and wanting a crisp, dry white wine chilled enough to cut through your thirst like a samurai sword. First of all don’t forget good sparkling wine — champagne, cremant, sekt, cava, prosecco, whatever. Consider, too, wines that are not sparkling but have good petillance or light sparkle. And if you don’t want much alcohol, consider white wine spritzers and low-alcohol wines in general.
Remember, sweetness never knocks out a thirst. Especially on hot days, think dry (sec, seco, sekt, etc.). Dry wine is what results from converting residual sugar to alcohol during fermentation. A medium-dry wine retains a bit of residual sugar. “Off-dry” means having a wee hint of sweetness. A fully dry wine has no unconverted residual sugar.
Taking only white wines for the moment, to prevent spoilage they should be harvested, taken to the winery, and crushed very quickly and without delays. Crushing, destemming, and pressing take place before fermentation. Pressing not only releases the juice but also minimizes contact between the juice and what’s left: skins, seeds and stalks. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks ensures temperature control of yeast activity, a determinant of the wine’s style. After fermentation the wine is racked, filtered and stabilized to deter clouding in the bottle.
The global “light trend” in recent years has increased the popularity of light, aromatic whites created by slow fermentation in steel tanks. Usually steel-tank fermentation, intended to retain more of the grape’s natural fruit flavor, takes place at 16-18 C, but it may go as low as 10 and may continue for four weeks. Full-bodied whites are fermented more quickly, in the cask, at temperatures as high as 25 C. Light whites are bottled more quickly, too, in three-six months, whereas full-bodied whites may remain in cask for as many as 20 months before bottling.
One of my favorite hot-weather wines is crisp, appley prosecco, made from a white wine grape of the same name grown in northeastern Italy, most notably in the DOC of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbladene. Prosecco is usually vinified into dry sparkling wines, either lightly sparkling (frizzante) or fully sparkling (spumante). If you find yourself in Venice, find a sunny vine-draped arbor and share a carafe of prosecco with someone you appreciate as your stress melts away.
You can play out similar scenes in a lot of wonderful places, from California, Paris, Lisbon and Barcelona to Rome, Geneva, Vienna and Budapest. Consider a cafe overlooking a river. Did Paris come to mind? How about Wurzburg, Germany, or Maribor, Slovenia, or Vienna, Austria? How about Amsterdam, with its lovely canals?
Briefly, let’s look at a few white grapes that are among those commonly used for crisp, dry hot-weather wines, while bearing in mind that white wine can be made of red grapes as well as white grapes, or from a combination of both, and that some young reed wines like to be chilled. The grapes presented here are not to be considered especially suited for good hot-weather wines, since dryness, as noted, is a result of converting sugar to alcohol through yeast activity during fermentation.
Chardonnay: This can be very distinguished, with apple, spice, peach, apricot, butterscotch and other wonderful flavors that vary widely with soil type and climate. Obviously, the same varietal grown in places as different as California and New Zealand will show local traits. Chardonnay, like riesling, is a true chameleon, varying a great deal. Chardonnay is one of the three grapes used to make champagne, and is the grape of white Burgundy.
Chenin blanc: This too can vary widely from dry types to sweet. One of my favorites — dry, spicy, and fruity — come from Stellenbosch in South Africa. Lean classic styles of chenin blanc come from the Loire Valley and are wonderful with chevre (goat cheese).
Riesling: Like chardonnay, one of the world’s great grapes, and very adaptable — grows in cold and warm climates alike and displays dramatic differences in character accordingly. At its best it’s very fruity, with good acidity to balance the fruit. Riesling ages very well and spans a broad spectrum of fruit flavors depending on the climate and soil. Not to be confused with Welsch riesling, olaz rizling and others.
Sauvignon blanc: Perhaps my favorite, in terms of some of its basic varietal characteristics — fresh-cut grass, green peppers, asparagus, flint, gooseberry. It has a forthright aroma and flavor. Sauvignon blanc tends to be dry with a good bit of acidity, and tends to come right at you. In general, winemaking is loaded with exception — sauvignon blanc enjoys just a bit of oak if any.
Semillon: This is the grape of white Bordeaux and can be very interesting in dry whites from Australia, Chile and Argentina. Since it has some of the same herbaceous flavors as sauvignon blanc, and is often blended with it to benefit from its aroma and acidity, and to gain richness and complexity. South Africa and California, among others, also produce semillon, a grape that takes well to oak.
That’s it for now. Find a little time to enjoy a little wine. Cheers!