There are wines and then there are summer wines.
The 1982 Chateau Petrus, for example, is a magnificent wine -- one of the classic red Bordeaux of the century. But it is not even a halfway decent summer wine.
A great summer wine is one you can drink with pleasure and
thorough appreciation as you sit on the deck on a languid summer evening when the temperature is slowly descending from the 90s.
You don't need a deep, rich, complex wine. You don't need the depth of a mature wine in its prime. And certainly you don't need rough tannins or high alcohol.
No, the real essence of a fine summer wine is freshness. It doesn't matter whether the wine is white, red or pink. The fruit should jump out of the glass with a joyful shout and race across the palate, leaving behind a trail of refreshing acidity.
It shouldn't be so hard to find such p5,9l wines, but a recent series of tastings showed there are many pitfalls awaiting the consumer who is looking for a refreshing wine for pool-side pleasure or grill-side guzzling. Out of more than 65 wines tasted -- many of them recommended by retailers -- more than a dozen were clearly past their prime.
The chief problem is that the American wine distribution system, particularly on the East Coast, is shockingly indifferent to freshness. Stores are chock-full of tired wines that would have been delightful a year ago. And salespeople are still recommending those wines because they were lovely the last time they tasted them -- maybe nine months ago.
For instance, one of the best wine stores in the Baltimore area continues to sell the 1991 vintage of three different white wines from the Cotes de Gascogne in France. All were charmers last summer; all are decrepit now. But that retailer probably won't bring in the 1992s until all the 1991s are sold -- which could take until nearly Labor Day.
What went wrong? It's simple. Cotes de Gascogne wines are good for one summer, then pfffft! All they're good for is making sangria.
In fact, the day after their first Labor Day, these wines should have been put on deep discount and blown out of the store. But instead of thinking like a produce dealer, the merchant thought like the curator of a wine museum. And this store is better than 95 percent of its peers.
In an ideal world, the wine producers themselves would put honest expiration dates on their products. After all, they're no less perishable than milk; only the time line is different.
But that's unlikely to happen. A winery this candid would likely find most retailers refusing to carry its products because they don't want to deal with returns. Besides, many winemakers chronically overestimate the longevity of their wines.
So, with government action neither likely nor desirable, the only defense is an informed consumer. Sadly, many consumers still believe older is better when it comes to wine.
With summer wines, it just isn't so. A 1991 California cabernet sauvignon will still be young, but a 1991 California white zinfandel or chenin blanc -- as well as many sauvignon blancs -- will have lost a step.
This is not to say all wines made before 1992 should be avoided for summertime quaffing. Wines from cooler growing regions, as well as sturdy varieties such as riesling, can keep their freshness for several years.
So which wines should we be looking for this summer?
Well, if you're determined to have the very best and you're willing to look long and hard to find it, the ultimate summertime wine is the 1991 Muscat d'Alsace from Zind-Humbrecht -- the world's greatest producer of white wine.
This dry white wine combines a breathtaking intensity with crystalline purity. With precise, penetrating flavors of honey, peach and melon, it glides across the palate like a gold medal skater.
Amazingly, this wine costs only about $17. The trick is finding it. ,, (The only Maryland shop that reliably carries Zind-Humbrecht is Mills in Annapolis.)
For most of us, however, $17 is a bit pricey for a simple summertime quaff. Thus, my tasting concentrated on wines that cost less than $10.
What I found is that the less-traveled paths will bring the consumer to the better wines.
Overall the California wines in the tasting were disappointing, but wines from other parts of the United States showed surprisingly well. Some of the very best summertime wines on the market came from Oregon, Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.
And don't forget Virginia. If there is any wine in the tasting that most fully embodied what a summertime wine should be, it was the 1992 Governor's White from Williamsburg Winery -- a $7 steal.
Riesling was by far the most successful varietal in the tasting. Whether from Germany or New York or the Pacific Northwest, it showed class and structure while its crisp acidity kept it fresh and frisky. It's a pity that so many American consumers ignore this noble varietal, which can be vinified dry or sweet with equally impressive results.
Among red varietals, the summertime champion is the gamay of Beaujolais. California produces some fine examples, notably from Robert Pecota, but canny consumers should consider going directly to the source because Beaujolais prices have fallen from their 1989-1990 levels.
Beaujolais tastes best with a light chill (not ice cold), and it goes admirably with barbecued foods from chicken to fresh tuna. Both the 1991 and 1992 vintages produced admirable wines. The wines of Georges Duboeuf are a known -- and excellent -- quantity, so this tasting became an opportunity to search for other Beaujolais talent. It was found in the wines of Jean-Marc Aujoux.
Pink wines seem to move through the distribution process better than whites. Although there are plenty of tiring 1991s on the market, there's a good supply of 1992s. Rose wines, especially the misnamed white zinfandel, come in for a lot of snooty commentary from the chardonnay-or-death crowd, but they can be very pleasurable companions on a deck or patio.
California chenin blanc, particularly in its drier form, can be a delicious summertime wine, but the 1991 vintage is starting to show its age. For instance, the 1991 Pine Ridge from Napa Valley is still a good wine, but it has clearly lost some of its fruity charm since last summer. Keep an eye out for the 1992 from Dry Creek, a perennial top value.
Certain sauvignon blancs have a racy, lightly herbal quality that will make you want to throw a few more shrimp on the grill. The catch is that the same style that goes down smoothly on a hot summer night is also the first to fade. Many of the California 1991s I tasted were disappointing. Even wines from such great producers as Dry Creek, Preston and Robert Pecota seemed weary.
Chardonnay has no particular affinity for summertime drinking. It is more a wine for fall and spring. Warm weather tends to quickly bring the oak to the fore, and most chardonnays that lack oak influence are innocuous. Besides, the overall quality of the chardonnays you can buy for less than $10 is abysmal.
Finally, keep in mind that wine does have its limitations. When the temperature gets into the high 90s and just squats there, you might as well sheath your corkscrew. That's when wine must give way to beer or some less potent beverage.
Of course, any wine can be a summer wine if you turn the air conditioning up high enough.