To stand up to the smoky flavors of outdoor barbecue, a wine has to be assertive, and maybe even a bit pushy. It can be a red, a white, or even a blushing rose'. But if it's a shrinking violet, it just won't get the job done.
First there's the smoke. Recently, I attended a tasting of excellent bordeaux from the 1982 and 1983 vintages. After I had tasted the first row of five wines, my notes were liberally sprinkled with phrases like "loaded with smoky, toasty oak," "deep, roasted flavors and aromas," and "ripe, charred, smoky fruit."
How remarkable, I thought to myself, that so many estates had adopted the same distinctive winemaking style for the vintages. Turning to share what I thought was a deft insight with a fellow taster, I noticed a more plausible explanation: the patio door was open, letting in enough hickory smoke to toast an army of zealous bordeaux tasters and their too-polite wines.
Another problem is the heat, and not necessarily from the grill, at this time of year. A mature wine resting comfortably in a cool basement will hardly relish the opportunity to wake up to an August heat wave. Better to leave it for the fall, when its mellow flavors won't be thrown hopelessly out of balance by the Washington summer.
Finally, there's the barbecue sauce, which can be pungent, acidic, herbal and often sweet. The wine needn't fit one or all of those descriptions to be a good companion, but it had better have enough fruit to make its presence felt.
If all that adds up to a prescription for buying strapping young wines with plenty of refreshing character, so much the better. Many new releases fit that description precisely, and late summer, with its more relaxed entertaining, is a great time to try the pick of the new crop.
All of the following will go exceedingly well with the smoky flavors of barbecuing, whether imparted by mesquite, hickory, or the infamous charcoal briquet. Odds are you'll find several you'll want to keep drinking long after the grill is packed away for the winter.
Your retailer can order a wine from the wholesaler listed in brackets. Prices are approximate.
Whites Poultry and fish pick up a wealth of subtle smoky components when grilled, and a well chosen wine can help bring out these flavors. Chill the wine a bit more than you might ordinarily, as ambient temperatures are higher in summer and the wine will quickly reach the proper cool serving temperature.
Penfolds 1986 "South Australian" Fume' Blanc (Australia; $5-$7): Renowned for its magnificent (and expensive) Grange Hermitage and other powerhouse reds, Penfolds rather more quietly continues to send us its whites, which are often high quality. This is a very lively herbal, grassy fume' blanc that, unlike Penfolds' somewhat over-oaked chardonnays, relies on its beautifully defined, clean fruit for its success. (Forman)
Corvo 1986 "Duca di Salaparuta" (Italy; $5-$7): Although the weak dollar has forced the price higher, the quality is up even more on the latest Corvo, a delightful wine that is bursting with tangy, succulent fruit. (Forman)
Pouilly-Vinzelles 1985 "Cave Cooperative Cuve'e Vin Conseil" (France; $7-$9): For just a dollar or two more than a good ma~con, this wine comes very close to matching the complexity and finesse of its fraternal twin, the ever popular pouilly-fuisse', produced almost next door. Impeccably clean, it has a fresh fruit and mineral bouquet, and lively, nicely concentrated fruit; plenty of value is evident here. Perfect with grilled delicate fish or chicken. (Beitzell)
Goubert 1986 "Sablet" Co~tes du Rho~ne Blanc (France; $6-$7): The bouquet has distinctive lemony, mineral notes, and on the palate the pear- and peach-like flavors are very appealing. But it's the overflowing, vibrant fruit that makes me think that this just may be the best white co~tes du rho~ne on the market. (Beitzell)
Berri Estate 1986 "South Australian" Semillon ($6): Unquestionably a distinctive wine, this is also a very good wine, with intense, spicy fruit and a ripe, roasted component tailor-made for grilled light meat or fish. (Bacchus)
Lucien Albrecht 1985 Gewu rztraminer "Bollenberg" (Alsace; $10): Exotic tropical fruit and spice bouquet, rich and lush on the palate, fine style with moderate acidity. (Robert Kacher Selection, Washington Wholesale)
Olson "Glacier" White 1985 (Mendocino; $4-$5): Perfectly named, this fruity blend of french colombard, chenin blanc and riesling is very crisp and refreshing, with a round, fruity finish. Serve glacially cold. Excellent value. (Vintage)
Gustave Lorentz 1985 Pinot Blanc "Reserve" (Alsace; $6): Powerful floral and mineral bouquet. Authoritative on palate, loaded with fruit and crisp acidity. Good aging potential. (Washington Wholesale).
Mirassou 1985 "White Burgundy" (California; $4-$5): One of my favorite offerings from a winery that is consistently offering good value these days, this "white burgundy" is really a pinot blanc, and offers intense, but crisply refreshing fruit, and a squeaky clean finish. (International)
Rose' and Blush Because they are usually finished somewhat sweet, blush wines make an excellent match with barbecue sauces or marinades, many of which are also distinctly sweet. White zinfandel is always a good choice, but do consider the excellent blush wines made from other grapes. Some have herbal and other flavors that work particularly well when served with well seasoned grilled foods. Don't buy anything older than 1986, and as with whites, chill well.
Christian Brothers 1986 Cabernet Blanc (Napa; $5); Konocti 1986 White Cabernet (Lake County; $4.50): Both of these wines add the distinctive cedary aromas and flavors of cabernet to the abundant fruit one expects in a white zinfandel. The Konocti is more lush and openly fruity, but the Christian Brothers is its equal, offering plenty of clean exuberent fruit, with a bit more subtlety. (Washington Wholesale, Forman, respectively)
Louis Martini 1986 White Petite Sirah (Napa; $5): An underrated grape variety in its usual red garb, petite sirah can produce excellent blush wine as well, as this example shows. Lovely sweet perfumed bouquet, very expressive, tropical fruitiness on the palate, and surprising finesse.
Caymus 1986 Pinot Noir Blanc "Oeil de Perdrix" (Napa; $7): Charmingly fruity, light and refreshing, let your 1980 Caymus reserve cabernets rest a little longer while you enjoy this enjoyable summer blush wine. (Vintage)
Reds While some of us prefer whites or rose's in summer, it's hard to imagine a charcoal grilled steak or rack of lamb without a full-flavored red wine alongside. On hot days, put these in the refrigerator about half an hour before serving.
Duboeuf 1986 Beaujolais Village "Flower Label" (France; $6): OK, so 1985 was a "better" beaujolais vintage than '86. I still can't resist the newly minted sheen of this '86, which has a perfumed peach and floral bouquet, soft, grapy fruit, and a clean finish -- in short a typical, well made Duboeuf. Serve chilled. (Washington Wholesale)
Toro "Colegiata" 1985 (Spain; $3): While all the reds I've tasted from this producer offer excellent value, this bottling is a super choice for barbecue, with ripe, grapey fruit that's robust and refreshing. (Beitzell)
Domaine Pradelle 1983 Crozes-Hermitage (Rho~ne; $6): Zesty raspberry bouquet jumps out, with subtle smoky notes underneath. Round, rich, surprisingly complex flavors fill the palate. Superb rho~ne value; get it while it lasts. (Washington Wholesale).
Castillo de Jumilla 1983 ($3); Castillo de Almansa 1982 ($4): These inexpensive wines from two neighboring regions in southeast Spain, Jumilla and Almansa, are remarkably tasty for the price. Both offer appealing fruit set against light oak. The Jumilla is slightly riper and more rho~ne-like, the Almansa is a bit firmer and more claret-like. Use either with grilled chicken or steak. (Imported by Beacon Imports, Boston, Mass., stocked at Calvert Woodley.)
Phelps 1986 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($5-$6): Phelps makes several zinfandels, and this excellent offering is in a zesty beaujolais style. Grapey, well scented, and spicy, this wine should be served slightly chilled with your grilled steak or lamb hot off the grill. (DOPS/Quality Beverage)
Wine Briefs Last September, government investigators were scurrying about Washington wine retailers' shelves buying bottles of imported wine, beer and liquor. Their mission? To collect samples for a testing program designed to detect contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The first two rounds of tests have now been completed, and the news is good. No measurable radiation (aside from normal background radiation) has been found in any of the samples.
But that positive report won't necessarily end matters. Because some Chernobyl-generated contaminants can persist for 30 years or more, the government says that the testing program will continue indefinitely. A spokesman for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency running the tests, says that it will "act immediately" to warn consumers should any unusual radiation be found.
A cold, wet, cloudy June has seriously harmed the critical flowering in Bordeaux, according to a report from the region's Committee Interprofessional (CIVB) growers association. Rainfall was 30 percent above normal and sunshine was 30 percent below normal for the month, causing widespread millerandage and coulure (maladies that result in fewer healthy grapes per bunch). Quantities are expected to be down significantly from the big 1986 harvest, but may still turn out to be about average for the region. It's still too early to predict quality. That's determined primarily by events at the harvest, which is expected to be late this year. If Bordeaux can avoid the threat of fall rains, quality could turn out to be excellent.
Things looked a lot brighter in California. Perhaps a bit too bright, as the biggest problem there was shatter, or poor setting of the fruit, caused by unusually hot, sunny weather. No one appears worried, though, and a few growers confided that Mother Nature's pruning may improve quality by keeping the yields from getting too high.
Nearby Middleburg holds its wine festival at Piedmont Vineyards on Saturday, Aug. 15, from 10 am to 5 p.m., rain or shine. Events include jousting and jazz, antique autos and arts and crafts, and of course, wine tastings and winery tours, as well as other events. Admission is $9 ($7.50 in advance), under 21 free. For information or to charge your ticket call (703) 687-5528