No cute themes this summer. I thought about it – focusing on one region, a particularly summery grape, or something like that. But really, what we want for summer is refreshing wines that aren’t too pricey; why dress it up? Especially this year, what with ridiculous gas prices, a faltering economy, and higher prices on imported wines because of the weak dollar. Whether it’s for our winelist or for ourselves, affordable wines can get us through the summer without having to worry that the budget might run out before Labor Day. So without further ado, here are ten wines that come under the $15 mark, retail, all suited to summer weather.
- Ken Forrester Petit Chenin 2007 Stellenbosch, South Africa ($9)
Early European settlers planted Chenin Blanc in South Africa as early as 1655, so it’s no surprise that it was a major export once apartheid ended. However, it never really caught on here, at least in part because consumers could never be sure what they’d get – the wines range from light and crisp to full, luscious, and oak-aged. I’d say that range is actually one of the grape’s virtues, but I admit that it is a marketing challenge. Ken Forrester’s Chenins cover the whole span, and the Petit Chenin represents the crisp end. Medium-bodied, with lots of citrus, melon and floral notes, it’s a refreshing antidote to hot weather.
- O’Reilly’s Chardonnay 2006 Oregon ($14)
O’Reilly’s is Owen Roe’s entry-level range, made with fruit sourced from three different vineyards in different parts of Oregon. It’s fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and older oak barrels; on the whole the former helps it keep its freshness, while the latter rounds out the angularity a bit. The 2006 shows a mix of mineral, citrus, melon, and pineapple notes; it’s medium-bodied and smooth, with a clean, focused finish.
- Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés 2007 Salta, Argentina ($10)
Here we are: another potential “signature “white.” If South Africa has its Chenin, Argentina has set its heart on Torrontés. However, while Chenin Blanc can be variable in character, Torrontés is at its best light and crisp – trying to pump it up generally means a loss of acidity that leads to a soft, flabby wine. If you want to avoid that problem, plant in cooler areas; high-elevation Cafayete, in the northern part of Salta, for example. The 2007 is quite floral, with an almost briny minerality plus notes of peach and grapefruit. It’s light, and has no problems with acidity – it all stays balanced and clean.
- J Wine Company Pinot Gris 2006 Russian River Valley, California ($14)
Originally devoted to sparkling wines, J Wine Company eventually started making still wines as well, expanding their mission beyond bubbles to exploring the potential of the Russian River Valley in other ways. The Pinot Gris is no Pinot Grigio wanna-be; full-bodied, and lush, it’s loaded with tropical fruit notes and touches of honey. It’s no refreshing thirst-quencher, so save this wine for a breezy summer night.
- Richard Hamilton ‘Slate Quarry’ Riesling 2007 McLaren Vale, Australia ($11)
In the U.S. the general assumption is that a Riesling will be sweet, but the Aussies expect it to be dry. Australian Rieslings – including this wine – are full-bodied, dry, and generally powerful; the Aussie sun creates the kind of ripeness that doesn’t need any residual sugar to balance the tart acidity of cool-climate fruit. They also develop the slatey, oily aromas that many Old World Rieslings only take on after years of maturation. The Richard Hamilton ’07 bottling has fruit – plenty of lime, grapefruit, and floral touches – but it’s the requisite minerality (I think of it as “slatiness,” but maybe the wine’s name exerting its power of suggestion?) that makes it stand out compared to many equally affordable Rieslings out there.
- Loimer ‘Lois’ Grüner Veltliner 2006 Kamptal, Austria ($10)
I’ve kind of told myself to stop recommending this sort of Grüner Veltliner – the light, crisp sort. I don’t have anything against the style itself, but the grape is often touted for its potential in this direction, and it’s not the only thing the grape can do. It can also achieve a more powerful character, in the right vineyard and vintage, and harvested a bit later. Of course, those qualifications lower availability and up prices, so such a Grüner is unlikely to turn up on this list. And for that matter, there’s a lot of crisp refreshing wines out there, so I suppose it’s worth singling out the ones that offer more than acidity and alcohol. The Lois has the white pepper and citrusy notes you’d expect, but there are also some gooseberry, flint, and mango notes that make it stand out from the pack, even while it stays, well, light and crisp.
- Dr. Frank Dry Rosé 2006 Finger Lakes, New York ($13)
It seems like we’re finally escaping the ghost of White Zinfandel, with its sweet and often insipid profile, and even “serious” wine drinkers are once more unashamed to be seen with a glass of something pink. It has to be said that winemakers have shown some initiative by putting more thought into creating flavorful, dry, and enjoyable wines: rosés are no longer an afterthought or a place to blend off poorer-quality grapes. The Dr. Frank rosé is a pale, salmon-pink wine, made from a blend of Bordeaux varieties, and is definitely more about mouthfeel than aroma. It does offer light peach, mineral, and cherry pit notes, but none of the intense strawberry touches that make many rosés indistinguishable from each other. Perhaps that makes it fall more toward the white wine side of rosé, but it also lends itself to enjoying multiple glasses over the course of a hot summer afternoon without tiring the palate.
- Palazzone ‘Rubbio’ 2005 Umbria, Italy ($12)
It should come as no surprise that the Italians have come up with some red wines that suit the hot summer weather. The Rubbio brings together three varieties that are more famous in Tuscany (Sangiovese and Canaiolo) and the Abruzzo (Montepulciano), but have historically been part of the Umbrian landscape for quite a long time. Recent vintages, like this 2005 have also added the international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the blend. It’s got a great nose, with red cherry, smoke, and floral touches; it’s medium-bodied, and the wine’s firm tannins and acidity make for a slightly rustic but cheerful finish.
- Arzuaga ‘La Planta’ Ribera de Duero 2006, Spain ($12)
Most Ribera del Dueros are a bit more powerful than I’d normally recommend for summer, and Arzuaga does have other wines in its line-up that live up to that style. The La Planta, however, reminds me of the joven (young) style in Rioja – red fruit (plum, cherry, and raspberry), a light dash of spice from a minimal amount of time spent in American oak barrels, and a smooth, refreshing finish. Made from 100% Tempranillo, it’s named after the winery’s old game reserve, and is a rare value from a region of costly cult wines.
- Maison Parigot et Richard Cremant de Bourgogne, Blanc de Blancs NV, Burgundy, France ($19)
I’m stretching the price limit up a few bucks for a sparkling wine – it’s the nature of the winemaking techniques, unfortunately. But there’s no question that this is a remarkable value, especially when you consider how Champagne prices have skyrocketed of late. Based in Savigny-les-Beaune, Maison Parigot et Richard is a rarity, devoted to bubbly in a region that’s all about still wine. The Blanc de Blancs is made from Chardonnay and Aligoté, and its raciness and lively character are great for summer; citrus, and pear aromas are complemented by some spice and mineral notes on the palate.
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