Summer is no time to abandon red wine. Fresh, fragrant reds, bursting with youthful fruit, are a perfect accompaniment to the lighter fare of the season, such as pasta salads and lighter meats. On the other hand, don't forget the full, rich flavors of a good Cabernet or Syrah, which seem to mesh so well with hearty red meats and sausage grilled to perfection over an outdoor fire.
The following red wines are my picks for a summer of pleasure. Each is a top value in its price range. Retailers may order through the wholesaler listed in parentheses. Prices are approximate.
Codice 1997 Rioja ($7-$8; Spain): With vibrant, red berry fruit highlighted by a dash of spicy new oak, this wine reminded me of a barrel sample of a newly minted Pommard-Village Burgundy. Light, supple tannins allow this to be enjoyed now, while the flush of youth energizes the wine. Looking back over past vintages of Codice, I was struck by the ability of this wine to wow me year after year. Put it on your core list of house reds, always in your cellar, ready to provide instant pleasure at the pop of a cork. (Kysela)
Tamara 1997 ($6; Portugal): This must be Portugal's answer to the preceding Codice--a fruity, lightly oaked red that impresses with a boundless expression of pure grapy essence. However, because this is made from the Periquita grape, rather than the Tempranillo grape of Rioja, the expression of fruit is noticeably different. While both wines have plenty of ripe cherry and berry notes, this adds an earthy note and finishes a bit drier. So while it definitely lacks some of the plumpness of Codice, it may be a better food wine, capable of matching well with summer pasta salads, light meats and grilled salmon. Drink this wine now and over the next six months. (Kysela)
Chateau Souverain 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Alexander Valley" ($20; California): How lovely to find a majestic California Cabernet that also drinks so well at a young age. While this deeply colored wine has abundant tannins on the finish (tannins are the dry, often somewhat chewy, components of red wine that give it much of its taste), here they are soft and lush, and blend beautifully with the flavor of ripe grapes. New oak is used skillfully by winemaker Ed Killian to season the wine with notes of fresh vanilla, but the oak doesn't overwhelm the beauty of the fruit. A great buy in a premium Cabernet, this is a wine to drink now for pleasure, but also capable of holding nicely and developing well in the bottle for three to five years, if desired. (Washington Wholesale)
Iron Horse Vineyards 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon ($22; California): Anyone who thinks that all California Cabernets taste alike should compare this with the preceding Chateau Souverain. While both are outstanding wines, this is a restrained, European style that will appeal to lovers of good Bordeaux, while the Souverain is a fruit-forward, California classic. The grapes for this wine come from a tiny, estate-owned vineyard in the northeast corner of the Alexander Valley. Winemaker Forest Tancer has done of a fine job of layering deeply flavored purple fruit over the austere notes of the tannins. While $22 is not cheap, this stylish wine competes favorably with top California Cabernets and better classified-growth Bordeaux, all of which cost substantially more ($30-$50). A note on vintages: While not tasted recently, the 1994 Iron Horse Cabernet was also exceptional. If you see it, grab a bottle or two. On the other hand, the 1995, at least the bottle I tasted some time ago, was rather odd and is not recommended.
Domaine de Coussergues 1997 Syrah ($7; France): The Syrahs coming out of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France are really becoming exciting, especially in view of the very modest pricing. This has gobs of fruit set off by a distinctly Chateauneuf-du-Pape-like note of earthiness in the mid-palate. It is an extraordinary bargain. And, as a reminder, don't miss the Domaine Coussergues Sauvignon Blanc recommended in a recent column either. (Kysela)
Rivefort de France 1997 Syrah "Limited Release" ($10; France): Rivefort is a Beringer project overseen by Aaron Pott, an American winemaker with extensive experience at the top St. Emilion estates of Troplong-Mondot and La Tour Figeac. Consultants include David Schlottman, of Beringer's Napa Ridge winery, and John Louis Mandreau, the former winemaker of Chateau Latour. While the Cabernet and Merlot failed to impress me, this Syrah shone brightly, a sophisticated wine with spicy black cherry/licorice notes and a soft, supple finish. For a bit more money, it has considerably more polish than the very good Domaine de Coussergues, above. (Washington Wholesale).