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Beachfront Wines from Home and Away

by Jim Clarke
July 2005

Many wine regions make good vacation destinations, but only a few speak of summer and the beach. The best example in the U.S. isn’t even in California; it’s in New York. Each summer, New Yorkers – well-heeled New Yorkers, at least – head out to the Hamptons on Long Island to party and take in the sun. Now that the Cosmo has receded from popularity a bit, they’ve probably noticed that there are a number of good wines being made right next door. And if they haven’t, they should have.

For an affordable introduction to Long Island reds, try the Pindar Vineyards Pythagoras ($13). Despite the Greek name, Pindar, like many wineries in the Hamptons, often looks to Bordeaux as its role model; the Pythagoras is a blend of all five classic Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet, Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. But unlike a Bordeaux – unlike most still table wines – it’s non-vintage. The flexibility afforded by mixing different vintages and varietals allows Pindar to create a consistently good-value wine without being too dependent on individual harvest conditions. Medium-bodied, with a cherry aroma supported by smooth, earthy tones, the Pythagoras demonstrates why Long Island wines are worth looking into: well-balanced, food-friendly drinkability.

If you prefer to stick with something chilled in the summer heat, look to Channing Daughters, a very strong winery in Bridgehampton with a knack for unusual varietals and blends. The worst thing you can say about their wines is that they tend to sell out too quickly. Fortunately, their 2004 “Sauvignon” ($24) is still available. Unlike many American Sauvignon Blanc producers, they look not to France or New Zealand for inspiration, but rather to northeast Italy’s so-called “Super-Friulians.” The Channing Daughters “Sauvignon” sports an uncommon blend: 77% Sauvignon Blanc and 23% Chardonnay. A complicated regimen of barrel and stainless steel aging gives it a rich texture without losing a crisp, laserbeam freshness and focus. Look for layers of spice, minerals, and green apple as well as some more flamboyant, tropical fruits. It’s a good accompaniment for goat cheeses and prosciutto, but rich enough for chicken and fish as well.

One of my favorite dessert wines is Wölffer Estate’s 2003 Late Harvest Chardonnay ($35 for a half-bottle). Honestly, I try to avoid outlandish tasting notes, but every vintage of this wine has given me at least a touch of sweet and sour pork on the nose. If that sounds implausible, maybe other aromas such as overripe peaches, honey, and orange-blossom will sound more appealing. This late-harvest “ice-wine” is a cheater, though: the grapes do not freeze on the vine as a purist (noses in the air, please) would demand for ice-wine; instead the winery uses a commercial freezer to get the same concentration of sugars, acidity, and flavor. It’s hard to argue with the results.

If you prefer to travel to beaches abroad, you can’t ignore Italy; after all, the country is all coastline. The Lido in Venice offers sun and sand followed by a nightly retreat to a beautiful urban setting, even if the beach itself is a bit past its glory days. The surrounding region’s sparkling wine, Prosecco, on the other hand, is enjoying an upswing in popularity and quality and evokes much of the city’s elegant and light-hearted style. Look for the Nino Franco “Rustico” Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($13); one of the best, it offers aromas of lemon, minerals, and a light touch of spice. Good Prosecco like this doesn’t try to pass itself off as Champagne; it’s light-bodied and fun, playing the harlequin instead of the aristocrat.

Getting out of the city, Liguria – the Italian Riviera – is an Italian resort area that has held onto its idyllic, jetset lifestyle. While Portofino has effortless elegance down pat, it’s in the more rustic Cinque Terre to the east where wine production is more evident; the perplexing difficulty of harvesting the steep, rocky vineyards makes an impression on even the most casual observer. The region as a whole may not be known for its wines, but that’s mainly because most of it was drank locally instead of being exported. These days Ligurian wines can be found here in the U.S., especially those made from local white grapes Pigato or Vermentino. The latter is also grown in France, neighboring Tuscany, and Sardinia, and makes a light, crisp, herbal wine, sometimes with a touch of saltiness. Pigato tends to be similar, but more intense, showing a sharp, bitter almond character in its finish. The Bisson Pigato 2004 ($25) captures the focused intensity of the grape: some citrus fruit, certainly, but lots of fennel, mint, and minerals as well. It screams for fish, calamari, or the local Genovese favorite, pesto.

These days, the Amalfi Coast may be Italy’s most popular destination for beachgoers; while they bake in the sun, winemakers in the mountains nearby have resuscitated one of Italy’s greatest red wines: Aglianico. The grape has been around for a long time; the name is believed to be derived from “ellenico,” for the Greeks who historians say introduced it to the area. Winemaking in the area has made some big steps forward in recent decades, and those who say that Aglianico deserves a place alongside Sangiovese and Nebbiolo as one of Italy’s great native varietals have more and more wines to point to as examples. For a special evening meal, as breezes cool you off after a perfect day in the sun, the Feudi di San Gregorio “Serpico” 2001" ($80) may be the wine that will make it all last forever. Rich and full-bodied, its dark fruit aromas – boysenberry, licorice – are rounded out by notes of chocolate, black pepper, and clove. That may sound heavy, but there’s also some lighter elements adding further complexity and keeping things fresh, especially raspberry and some floral touches. If you really want to make the experience last, buy a case and open a bottle whenever you want to recover that lost evening; this wine will long outlast the summer heat.