Summer brings out the best in a good white wine, often at a bargain price. Whether served on the deck, patio, picnic table or apartment balcony, a well-chilled white wine is always welcome, adding a crisp, refreshing counterpoint to the bright sun and blue sky. Excellent choices abound, starting as low as $6.
The following wines are all highly recommended for summer service. While everyone revels in a bargain, please don't overlook the more expensive wines that made this list. Each offers an elusive "something extra" that makes it worthwhile if the budget allows. Wines were selected from extensive blind tastings of current releases and are listed in order of preference based on quality delivered for the price. Prices are approximate. Retailers may order through the wholesaler listed in parentheses.
Hugues Beaulieu 1998 "Picpoul de Pinet" ($6-$7; France): "Picpoul" means "lip stinger," referring to the old days when Picpoul de Pinet was tart, lean and acidic. However, times have changed with the introduction of modern cold fermentation techniques that emphasize fruit. Made from the Folle Blanche grape also used in Muscadet, to which Picpoul de Pinet is often likened, this wine explodes with grapy freshness, highlighted by hints of apple and lemon to perk up the palate. A steal at the price. (Kysela)
Domaine de Coussergues 1998 "Sauvignon" ($7; France): With smooth, pure Sauvignon Blanc fruit, this wine from the Languedoc comes very close in quality to a good Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre (typically $16-$20) from the Loire. As an aperitif, it may actually work better than its Loire cousins, because it is a bit fatter and not as bone dry. For the record, it blows away its chief French competitor in this price range, Bordeaux Blanc, which is also made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc. Maybe the red wine-loving Bordelaise think white wines are supposed to taste sulfury and dull. They should taste this. (Kysela)
Jean Reverdy 1998 Sancerre Blanc "La Reine Blanche" ($15; France): Taut, elegant and fruity, good Sancerre ranks with the world's greatest white wines, yet remains modestly priced. This lovely example does it all, expressing the fresh-herb varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc without excessive grassiness or acidity. The finish, while crisp, is not mouth-puckeringly dry. A fine performance. (Kysela)
Domaine des Dorices 1997 Muscadet ($11; France): Especially plump and fruity for Muscadet, this doesn't have the mouth-puckering acidity that has relegated most Muscadets to the oyster wine category. However, it still has a lot of zing, as well as the lemon/lime, yeast and mineral flavors that make good Muscadet such an arresting wine. (Christopher Canaan/Bacchus)
Hogue 1997 Chardonnay "Barrel Select" ($14; Washington); Columbia Crest 1997 Chardonnay "Estate Series" ($14; Washington): Don't write off Chardonnay as a summer sipper. When the alcohol is in check and the acidity is maintained, the green-apple varietal character of good Chardonnay is a palate rejuvenator of the first order. With both these terrific Chardonnays grown in Washington's Columbia Valley, barrel fermentation heightens and rounds out the Chardonnay varietal flavors. The Hogue is perhaps the more Burgundian of the two, while the Columbia Crest is a bit fatter and more California-like. These wines offer a level of concentration that even the best $10-range Chardonnays (including those recommended in a recent column) can't quite match. Note: while Columbia Crest also makes a fine regular Chardonnay for about $9, this more complex wine is from the "Estate Series" and is identified as such on the label. (Hogue is distributed by Bacchus; Columbia Crest is distributed by Forman.)
Barat 1997 Chablis Premier Cru "Les Fourneaux" ($18; France): Less than a quarter of the production of Chablis is from Premier Cru vineyards, the next level down from Grand Cru, and it is often expensive. However, this wine is priced only slightly higher than simple Chablis. More importantly, it displays the added complexity that one should expect, but does not always receive, from a Premier Cru. Made from 100 percent Chardonnay, this racy wine has vibrant citrus and mineral notes typical of the Chablis terroir, and genuine authority on the palate. Wonderful with grilled fish or Dover sole meuniere. (Vinifrance Imports/Olivier Daubresse Selection)
Campanile 1998 Pinot Grigio ($11; Italy): Pinot Grigio from Friuli is especially aromatic and delicate compared with those from elsewhere in Italy. This one is especially agreeable, with layers of apple, pear, spice and melon flavors. An absolute delight. (Beringer/Washington Wholesale)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 1997 Semillon "Barrel Fermented" ($8; Washington): Rounder and softer than Sauvignon Blanc, with which it is often blended, Semillon can have much appeal, particularly when handled correctly. The key is keeping it crisp, which is a specialty of Washington State. In this wine, ripe honeydew, citrus and fig aromas lead into crisp apple and citrus fruit on the palate. Barrel fermentation and oak aging added a subtle vanilla/toasty note. Fine value. (Forman)