SAY "WINE CELLAR," and most of us immediately have an image of cases of vigorous young wines--clarets, burgundies, nebbiolos, cabernet sauvignons--laid down for a half-dozen years or so to achieve a velvety maturity.
But now that April is behind us, why not a different sort of cellar Wine a wine cellar for summer, whose only purpose is to provide us with fresh, fruity wines over the next four months as we assault the bays, the beaches, the back yards and wooded parks?
Now is a particularly good time to buy, while stocks are fresh. And you won't have to contend with last-minute needs on hot Sundays when most liquor stores are closed. A half dozen to 10 carefully selected cases should see us through.
First, the parameters. Most, if not all, of the wines should be able to be served chilled to keep us cool as we gulp them down with chicken salad between bouts of badminton and volleyball. They should be lighter wines to suit such lighter fare as salads and sandwiches, and they should be refreshing to fit the season. Within these similarities, there should still be enough room for diversity to match different meals and moods.
Starting with whites, a traditional summer favorite is vouvray from the Loire valley. Vouvrays are very fruity wines made from the chenin blanc grape, and they are often made slightly sweet. They are excellent quaffing wines on a hot day, although they may not always be the perfect companion to food.
Vouvray's California cousins, the chenin blancs, come in several styles and prices, but you may be particularly interested in two from different ends of the spectrum. If you're looking for fruitiness and a touch of sweetness, try the inexpensive nonvintage Christian Brothers chenin blanc. The Kenwood chenin blanc, on the other hand, is more refined, drier and pricier, yet it maintains some of the fruitiness of the grape.
While chenin blancs are fruity, rieslings--or johannisberg rieslings as they are generally called in California--have strong floral tastes and aromas. The top rieslings from Germany are often in the high-priced dessert category, but for simple summer drinking, buy a recent vintage QbA grade riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. The price should be right, and there might even be a hint of peach nectar to go with the floweriness of the wine.
A delightful California johannisberg riesling is the "early harvest" version from Joseph Phelps, which, while not truly a "light" wine, has less alcohol, fewer calories--and, alas, a higher price--than most other Napa Valley rieslings.
While flowers and fruit are great for straight drinking, other characteristics might be more desirable for wines at the table. Gewurztraminers from Alsace and California are typically light, sometimes slightly sweet, but mainly spicy--peppery, to be exact--which recommends them as companions for May foods. The Alsatians are generally a bit more assertive, standing up even to roast goose, so Californians might be your best bet for picnic fare. Mark West from Sonoma County and Hawk Crest (the second line of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars) are both very nice choices. An inexpensive gewurztraminer is made by Gallo, but its quality seems to have fallen off a bit recently.
Sauvignon blancs, or fume' blancs, can add some vegetal, herbal or grassy tones to your summer whites. Although they are not quite as fresh at this stage, you might want to consider the French versions from the 1979 vintage in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume'. For Californians, you might choose such expensive reliables as Robert Mondavi, Dry Creek and Chateau St. Jean. Locally, the Byrd sauvignon blanc is perhaps the best Eastern version of the wine. The soaves of northern Italy are still a good buy for inexpensive whites with a crisp edge to the finish, in spite of the recent trend toward overcropping and, perhaps, worse to meet world demands. Folonari and Santa Sofia generally are good picks. Another good crisp white is muscadet from France.
Finally, there are chardonnays of California and white burgundies from France, both of which generally may be too heavy and oaky (as well as expensive) for alfresco drinking. But if you must have chardonnays, this summer try some of the lighter, less-expensive varieties from Mendocino County.
The list of summer reds is not quite as long--in fact, you might want to limit it to three styles--beaujolais, co tes du rhone and valpolicella.
Beaujolais is the quintessential summer wine, a fresh, fruity red of moderately full body that can be served chilled. The beaujolais nouveau on the shelves is probably getting a little jaded after being around for a few months, so stick with simple beaujolais or beaujolais villages. Jadot and Georges du Boeuf make reliable brands.
The California equivalent of beaujolais is Napa gamay, of which Charles F. Shaw and Robert Mondavi are good examples. M. du Boeuf is now bursting his grapes on this side of the Atlantic as well, and you might enjoy the Georges du Boeuf & Son beaujolais-style red table wine made in conjunction with Jordan Winery.
Co tes du rhone is the simple lad of the Rhone family--fresh, not-at-all complex and straightforward. Unlike the hermitages and the co te roties, co tes du rhones tend to be lighter, dry and slightly peppery. As such, they are excellent wines to have with grilled hamburgers and simple picnic meats. Co tes du rhones may be chilled if you like, but it's better to save this treatment for the beaujolais.
The Northern Italian simple reds such as valpolicella and bardolino tend to be a touch sweeter and fuller than the co tes du rhone and take much better to the ice bucket.
Unless you're snobbish about rose's, you might want to add some California rose's of cabernet sauvignon to your cellar. The light-of-the-light rose's, the "eye of the partridge" style, are also summer favorites. One of the best is made by Sebastiani, even though it goes under the mutant name of "Eye of the Swan." It is made from pinot noir grapes. Most European rose's tend to be a bit down on the color by the time they get off the dock, so buy American.
Finally, we have the sparkling wines. It is not fashionable these days to tout Domaine Chandon's duo--the pink blanc de noir and the steady brut--but both are the top class of the available $9-to-$12 market, although they cannot keep company with the many good true champagnes in the over-$15 category.
And you might want to top off your buying and your summer meals with the non-vintage Roederer "Carte Blanche," a slightly sweet, almost cremant champagne that has enough acidity to clear the palate. It is a beautiful wine, one to savor at evening's end with a fresh, chilled bowl of unadorned strawberries or raspberries.
With any luck, your summer cellar will be only a pleasant memory by September and you can go back to laying down big reds for the long sleep.