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By Thane Peterson In the dog days of summer, when menus tend to be dominated by hamburgers, steaks, and other barbecued delicacies, beer seems to be the default beverage. I figure there have to be wines that complement simple summer fare, so I thought I would check in with Kevin Zraly, author of The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, the best-selling wine guide.
Zraly is a wine authority anyone should be happy to heed. He doesn't indulge in the snobbery that afflicts so many wine writers, and he believes people should drink what they enjoy. He also says that just about anyone can buy a really good bottle of wine for $50 -- the trick is finding one for $20 or less. Here are edited excerpts from our talk:
Q: What sorts of wines are you drinking, now that the hottest part of summer has arrived?
A: I'm a red wine drinker. So to me, drinking red wine in the summer is O.K. There are lots of different grapes you can focus on that are perfect.
I'll suggest four, all of which should be chilled. They're all light in style, high in acid, and low in tannin. Acidity is good now because it's refreshing, just as it is in lemonade. Tannin is the component in wine that creates astringency and dries out your mouth. You don't want that in summer.
My first recommendation is gamay, which is the grape used in French Beaujolais. The two biggest producers are Louis Jadot and Georges Duboeuf. The second grape is pinot noir. It's hard to find good value in pinot noirs because the grapes are so hard to grow, but I'm not talking about the real expensive ones. You should be looking for wines under $20.
Saintsbury out of California has a [label] called Garnet. In general, I'd suggest California coastal wineries. Beaulieu Vineyards has its Coastal Selection and then there's Gallo of Sonoma. Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge label, which might be under $10 per bottle, is another possibility.
The third grape is tempranillo, from the Rioja area of Spain. A simple crianza -- which is a style of Rioja -- is a perfect wine for chilling down and enjoying with barbecued food. The last grape is sangiovese, the grape that makes chianti classico.
Q: Do you really recommend drinking red wine with a hamburger or hot dog?
A: The European way of looking at this is, "Just drink the wine." Don't worry about the label -- have fun. I was at a restaurant in New York the other night and had steak and French fries with a carafe of a simple Cote-du-Rhone. It was hot and that was the perfect thing to do. And these wines [I mentioned] will also go well with shrimp, steak, swordfish -- even sole if you're going to put that on the barbecue.
Q: What about white wines? What would you drink with a bass or northern pike?
A: A great French chablis. You might even get a premier cru chablis for under $20. Or a pouilly fum?, a ouilly-fuiss?, or a sancerre from France. What you want is something made with the sauvignon blanc grape. There are a lot of them in California: Silverado Vineyards, Simi, Buena Vista. They all make light sauvignon blancs that would be good. A pinot grigio would work, too, though they're often overpriced. What you want is a light white wine with no oak. Oak creates astringency.
Q: What about a chardonnay?
A: I can think of an example. Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma makes a chardonnay that would be perfect. It's got what I call "the kiss of oak." But you don't want a chardonnay with a lot of oak in it.
Q: If I were to go around to my neighbors right now, most of them would be drinking white zinfandel.
A: I have no problem with white zinfandel. It's the largest selling varietal wine sold in the U.S. Sutter Home is No. 1, Beringer is No. 2. The problem is that it has approximately 3% residual sugar.
It's the same question you have with Coca-Cola and other [soft drinks]: With that amount of sugar, is it really going to satisfy your thirst? During the summer, I would not be drinking something sweet. But I'm glad people are drinking white zinfandel instead of beer.
Q: If you're on a picnic, what should you do with red wine? Put it on ice?
A: Why not? I did it the other day. I was at a dinner and the wine was too warm. There was no ice bucket around, so I asked the waiter for ice and put ice in the wine. If you want to call me sacrilegious, O.K. But 86% of a bottle of wine is water to begin with. I was just adding a little bit more and cutting the tannins. And I got it chilled to the proper temperature.
I'm not saying to ice red wines down for hours like you would with whites. Your refrigerator temperature is 38 to 43 degrees. I'm suggesting taking these wines up another 20 degrees to 60 to 63 degrees. Not everyone would agree, but that's my preference.
Q: What about champagne and sparkling wines?
A: That is something I would always have on hand. Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate -- they're all California sparkling wines made by French houses that are under $20 per bottle. My only caution: Champagne served hot could be the worst drink in the world. Keep it chilled down. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online