Light-bodied wines match the surf splash for splash


It's late afternoon on the deck of your rental home overlooking the ocean. An August day's heat is beginning to break, and a caressing breeze wafts up from the water as you watch a school of dolphins leaping in the distance.

A book you've been wanting to read for months rests in your lap. Your nose catches the faint whiff of the fire your favorite companion is setting in the barbecue grill. Content with the world, you pick up your glass and take a sip of wine -- 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild at the peak of its maturity.

Cut! Cut! Cut!

What's wrong with this picture?

This being a wine column, you've probably guessed it's the wine. You're right.

The Lafite is indeed magnificent -- a classic Bordeaux from a monumental vintage. But it is as out of place in this setting as a silk blouse at a crab feast.

It's a vacation, after all. It's a time to relax, to leave the complexities of life at home. And that includes complex wines.

Perhaps you disagree, but for me a good summertime beach wine is, to some degree, frivolous. That doesn't mean poorly made or sickly sweet, but it shouldn't make me think too much. Fruit is in. Subtle mineral flavors are out. Zingy acidity is in. Mellow oak is out. Youth is in. Maturity is out.

In California, some of the most appealingly frivolous white wines are made from the underappreciated chenin blanc grape. In the hands of a fine winemaker, it can produce a brisk, fragrant wine that bursts with lively peach and tropical fruit flavors.

Such a wine is the 1994 Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Blanc ($8). There's a modest 1.2 percent residual sugar, but there's nothing wrong with a modicum of sweetness at the seashore. It's still a basically dry wine that would be excellent with a spicy fried chicken carry-out.

One caveat with California chenin blanc: They don't keep their freshness long. It's best to drink them before they're 2 years old.

Sauvignon blanc can also be an excellent choice for the beach -- as long as it isn't too good. A barrel-fermented, creamy sauvignon blanc such as a Caymus is wasted on such an occasion. Much preferable is a crisp, dry, herbal sauvignon blanc (aka fume blanc) such as Preston Vineyards' 1993 Cuvee de Fume from the Dry Creek Valley ($10). It's a wine of great zest and charm, with a wonderful smoky bite and a touch of juniper berry.

If the Preston -- an excellent, underrated winery, by the way -- has a flaw, it's that it borders on seriousness. Not so with another, cheaper sauvignon blanc: the nonvintage Barefoot Blanc ($5.49). It's light, but it's crisp and dry, with hints of smoke, pear and sweet pea. The 1994 Clos du Bois Sauvignon Blanc ($9) is just as appealing, but more expensive.

Riesling is another white wine grape that can be excellent by the seashore. But this is a case -- probably the only case -- in which American rieslings are more appropriate than their more famous cousins from Germany or Alsace.

Consider, for instance, the 1993 Amity Oregon Dry Riesling ($10). By German standards it's a bit too obvious and lacks mineral complexity, but these traits are seaside virtues. The Amity is an intensely fruity wine with flavors of peach, pear and spice. It's not bone dry, but that makes it even more suitable for sipping out on the deck. Ditto for the 1994 Trefethen Dry Riesling ($12.49) from the Napa Valley.

A wine does not need a famous grape variety on the label to be beach-worthy. A particular favorite is the 1994 Chaddsford Spring Wine ($8) from Pennsylvania. Forget that it's largely made from grapes with no snob appeal -- the hybrid seyval blanc, vignoles and vidal -- this is a sensational beachside wine. It actually does have a cool, springlike quality, which is just what you need on a hot evening at the shore.

If you don't mind a non-famous varietal white wine, latch on to the 1993 Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca from Bonny Doon ($10). It's a crisp, clean, fruity but dry wine that is holding up well despite being a year older than ideal.

While white wines have a particular charm at the beach, there are some foods that just cry out for red company. And while the big reds should stay home in the cellar, there are plenty of light, flavorful reds that won't make you sweat when the temperature's above 80.

Beaujolais is the prototype for light red wines, and the master winemaker of the region is Georges Duboeuf, whose 1994 "Flower Label" series is excellent.

Among Duboeuf's 1994s, the Chiroubles ($11) is a particularly decadent delight -- elegant but informal, a princess in beachwear with a heart-capturing laugh. With their bright raspberry flavors and crisp finish, Duboeuf's 1994 Cotes de Broully ($11) and Regnie ($10) are nearly as charming.

An equally appealing Duboeuf effort is the 1994 Domaine des Moulins Cotes du Rhone ($9). Most Rhones are a bit too burly for seaside sipping, but this explosively fruity essence of raspberry can join me on the deck anytime. Throw some burgers on the grill and prepare for Paradise.

Red zinfandel generally is too concentrated, too alcoholic and too challenging for mindless sipping, but there are lighter, fruity zinfandels that won't tax your brain cells. Rosenbaum Cellars' $12 nonvintage Vintners Cuvee X marks the spot where a beachside red zin ought to be.

Of course, zinfandel also comes in "white," which is a marketer's way of saying pink wine.

White zinfandels will never be great wines, but they have their place. And that place is under the boardwalk, on a blanket with your baby. Hey, pink wines can be great for giggles -- and if they're not too sickly sweet, they can also do an admirable job of washing down ham or fried chicken. Among the better producers are Amador Foothill, DeLoach and Buehler.

So lighten up and give your palate a break from all those challenging wines. There will be plenty of work to do when the vacation's over.

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