Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

The summer side of wine
© Randal Caparoso and Jane Faris

I think it was the Roman poet Horace who said, "thirst comes with summer."

And also with summer comes a bevy of foods associated with pools and patios, or starry nights on a deck, the smoky smells of barbecued chicken and sweet, buttery ears of corn. Potato salad studded with crunchy celery or sweet/hot peppers. Peel and eat shrimp. Vegetables with ranch or blue cheese dips. Heck, plump, oily, grill slashed Polish dogs waiting to hit the beds of white buns with ketchup and mustard.

Throw in a mix of muscle-bound and leggy models, then you've got yourself a beer commercial. Maybe that's the problem with fine wine - that it doesn't quite fit in with the fun and foods associated with summer. Personally, I don't think so.

For instance, I think a buttery textured, lusciously apple-like, yet perfectly dry California Chardonnay that's been aged in slightly smoky French oak barrels goes considerably further than a beer towards complimenting rock salted chicken inundated with smoke from the grill. Or, grilled chicken slathered with a vinegary sharp, sweet, mildly spiced red barbecue sauce: What beer can provide the easy, natural fruit tartness and sweetness balancing out the tingling sensations of the marinade that you can find in almost every good Riesling from Germany's Rhine or Moselle River, or from California or Washington State?

I'm sure it wasn't beer that Horace, and the early Greeks and Romans, drank to quench their summer thirst, but a variety of wines entailing the full spectrum of tastes given by the grape; such as acidity to freshen the palate, sugars to balance salty or spicy food sensations, tannins (in the case of red wines) to help digest meat fats, and just enough alcohol to give a sense of body without the heat or headiness associated with spirits.

So what are the ideal wines of summer? The wines with the highest percentage chance of matching barbecued meats, vegetables in creamy, salty dips, shrimp and raw clams or oysters in piquant hot sauces, and dripping, meaty hot dogs and hamburgers are those that are light on their feet, fresh and breezily scented, full of zip yet oh-so-easy to drink.

The following is a short list of all-time favorites, which I recommend with one caveat: never buy any vintages that are more than two years old (a 1999 vintage in 2002, for instance, would be too old). Summery wines are, by definition, eternally fresh and youthful!

Zardetto, Prosecco Brut (Italy; $9-$12) – First, a Northern Italian sparkling white wine that is not an Asti Spumante, but something dry and clean as a whistle. The fragrance is subtle – a rising dough-like yeastiness mingling with citrusy scents, hinting at strawberry. Heck, the best thing to do with a good Prosecco like Zardetto's may be to drop some sliced strawberries – or better yet, fresh peaches or a dollop of peach schnapps – and drink it like a breakfast of champions. Then again, a box of sushi or sashimi, lomi lomi or seviche, and any manner of pickled or salted fish and vegetables, would also do just fine with this fruity, lemony edge sparkler.

Kris, Pinot Grigio (Italy; $9-$12) – A flash of mineral, a steely dryness, citrusy freshness, and exuberant perfumes of pear, lavender and licorice: there is almost no better all-purpose white wine than an Italian Pinot Grigio, and the Kris is as good as it gets. It is its pervasive minerality that allows it to handle seemingly everything that swims; from a really good tuna sandwich, to a slab of tuna or swordfish charred on a grill and lavished with fruity, cilantro laced salsas, lime butters, soy vinaigrettes, peppery ponzus, or whatever you like to do with your chickens of the sea.

Murphy-Goode, Alexander Valley Fume Blanc (Alexander Valley, Sonoma; $9-$12) – Year-in, year-out, this winery produces the quintessential California Sauvignon (or "Fume") Blanc – light and snappy, dry as a bone, with a mouthwatering, grapefruity zest underpinning a fresh fruitiness scented like tropical fruit (such as mango and passionfruit). Need I say more? Pass the raw oysters, the clams and mussels. Don't worry about what Tabasco ketchups or vinegary mignonettes will do to this wine. Fry ‘em with bacon or bake ‘em with bechamel – the Murphy-Good Fume may be as easy, but it's solid enough freshen the palate after every bite, which is exactly what a summery wine should do.

Bonny Doon, "Pacific Rim" Riesling ($8-$11) - This is Santa Cruz crazy Randall Grahm's attempt to make the Riesling grape palatable to the masses - pretty much dry and palate bracing, but with an incisive, flowery fruitiness that whispers sweetness like the ardent song of sirens. Even the most hardened dry wine lovers, after all, appreciate the flavor of fruit in their wines; just as they appreciate foods laced with sugar, be it in the form of duck in orange sauce, pork and apples, dim sum in sweet-sour dips, or salads in sweet balsamic vinaigrettes. Which is precisely the reasoning behind the Pacific Rim Riesling - something reasonable, something fresh, and something able to cross most gastro-cultural boundaries. Even Grahm's sourcing is global: the wine is a blend of California, Washington St. and Moselle River Rieslings. One world, one wine... why not?

Rose di Regaleali (Italy; $8-$11) - Made from indigenous Sicilian grapes, this is always a completely dry, rosy pink wine, and its fleshy, mouth-watering flavors allow it to cross all kinds of food barriers. Red BBQ chicken is a no-brainer; so is meatloaf in an herby, mushroomy or tomato-laced gravy – the foods we really like to eat. Wok charring some crisp vegetables with ribbons of meat and fluffy white rice tonight? What better wine for an instant meal than an instantaneously fresh Regaleali!

Charles Melton, Barossa Valley "Rose of Virginia" Grenache (Australia; $10-$13) - My first taste of this seriously bone dry and full structured pink wine was in one of L.A. star chef Joachim Splichal's restaurants - matched with foie gras with rhubarb and strawberries! With fireworks, drums, and entire symphonies going off in my head, the wine's luscious, cherry bright fruitiness made this powerful dish even richer and more decadent. How many roses can do that? Every year the Charles Melton Rose of Virginia is as rich and full as a pink wine gets. But never mind the foie gras. This is one wine that I suspect would do just as well with grilled fish with fruit salsas, lamb kebabs with fruit chutneys, squab with figs, duck with plum sauce, or any dish that combines meats and natural fruits.

De Loach, White Zinfandel (California; $7-$10) - This has been the class of this fruity style of Zinfandel as far as anyone can remember. Although slightly sweet, this pale pink rendition positively brims with fruit; so much that it would almost seem naked with out some fresh, natural sweetness. While terrific with things like hibachi grilled salmon served with teriyaki and pickled ginger, it makes just as wonderful an antidote for chili-spiked BBQ meats and irresistibly sticky, vinegary, sweet, spicy baby back ribs.

Bandol Rose, Domaine Tempier (Provence, France; $14-$19) - The eternal favorite of Kermit Lynch, the respected Berkeley wine merchant, and produced by the Peyraud family, who has inspired legions of American gastronomes like Richard Olney and Alice Waters. But this is pink wine, not the stuff of royalty. What you will always find in Domaine Tempier's rose is something remarkably fresh, fluid, bone dry yet forwardly fruity - the essence of miniature sweet strawberries rolling across the tongue - finishing with a soft, stony smoothness. If you think "Mediterranean" as you uncork a bottle - ravioli and ragout, salt cod (brandade) and anchovy, pesto and aioli, ratatouille and bouillabaisse, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, olives and tapenade, leafy green herbs chopped with vine ripened tomatoes - you really can't go wrong.

"Nivole" Moscato d'Asti, Michele Chiarlo (Italy; $8-$11/half bt.) – This is a sweet white wine that is good enough for dessert – try some almond flavored whipping cream with some strawberry shortcake, peach pies, pear tatins or pineapple upside-downs – or as a basic, early morning refresher, if you happen to have something of a sweet tooth. What better way to greet a shimmering day than a feathery light wine (only 7 percent alcohol) that exudes the scents of lychee and rose petals. Praise the lord and pass the biscuits and jams!

May 15, 2002

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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