It's time to make sure the wine cellar (or wine rack, as the case may be) is well stocked with delectable white wines tailor-made to quench your thirst. This season, there's no shortage of excellent choices at reasonable prices.
The key to finding the best summer whites is to look for crispness, freshness and youth. Generally, the youngest available vintage is the best choice, regardless of what the vintage charts say. Young wines deliver the explosive fruit and freshness that comes from going from grape juice to wine in the shortest possible time. Remember, you are going to be drinking these wines, not aging them for posterity. So buy accordingly. Don't feel compelled to bust the budget. With so many excellent choices in the $10 range, spending more is a luxury, not a necessity. Prices are approximate.
Hogue Cellars 2003 Fume Blanc ($9; Washington): Making a consistently good Fume Blanc (also called Sauvignon Blanc) isn't easy, as the many bad examples on the market in all price ranges demonstrate. However, the state of Washington in general and Hogue Cellars in particular have quite clearly mastered the art of making balanced and enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc at an affordable price. A key to the success of Hogue Cellars' latest offering is what it doesn't have -- the obnoxious, bitter grapefruit notes that mar so many other Sauvignon Blancs. This allows the highly attractive notes of peach, guava and fresh herbs to shine through. And although this wine is decidedly Loire-style, the winemaking team has added 17 percent of the Bordeaux grape Semillon to plump up the middle palate and add just the right degree of richness. This fine offering will pair beautifully with shrimp, raw oysters on the half shell or grilled fish.
Barton & Guestier Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Tradition 2002/2003 ($8 to $9; France): Big things appear to be underway at Barton & Guestier, once a great negociant house owned by the Barton family of Bordeaux (owners of Chateaux Leoville-Barton and Langoa-Barton), which had fallen into thorough mediocrity in recent years. A new young winemaker, Laurent Prada, is shaking things up, and this Muscadet reflects the new attitude. For those not familiar with Muscadet, it comes from the far west of the Loire Valley near the ancient city of Nantes, where the Loire River meets the Atlantic. Muscadet is made of 100 percent Melon de Bourgogne grapes. Much of the character of Muscadet comes from the traditional method of a sur lie aging (stirring the fermenting wine to incorporate the yeasty sediment), a rather labor-intensive method to use for such an inexpensive wine. When it is done right, as with this wine, it results in a deliciously tangy, crisp summer wine. The 2002 B&G serves up refreshing citrus and mineral notes; a fresh, yeasty bouquet; and a crisp finish.
Domaine des Corbillieres 2003 Touraine Sauvignon ($11; France): Given that prices for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, the greatest Sauvignon Blanc wines of the Loire Valley, have been stuck in a time warp for the past three or four years and are ridiculously underpriced at about $20, you can imagine what a great bargain this Loire Sauvignon Blanc wine is at roughly half the price. Light and floral aromas of citrus and orange peel with a hint of mineral give way to authoritative Sauvignon Blanc varietal flavors on the palate. This wine has well-integrated acidity as well as unusual viscosity for a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, reflecting the extra ripeness of the warm 2003 vintage. Note also that the Domaine des Corbillieres Sauvignon from the excellent 2002 vintage is still drinking quite well and is available in some markets. Although I normally recommend drinking only the youngest available vintage of Touraine Sauvignon Blanc (Touraine Chenin Blanc is a different story and can age quite well), in this case I would buy one or both vintages depending on what's available on the shelf. Both vintages are terrific. (Robert Kacher Selection)
Livio Felluga 2003 Tocai Friulano ($25; Italy): All too often, a $20-plus wine placed amid a list of inexpensive wines gets ignored, but I hope that does not happen here. As good as the $10 and $12 wines are, a wine like this is in a different class. The 2003 Livio Felluga Tocai Friulano is wondrously full-flavored and rich, yet it manages to retain its vivacious fruitiness. Tocai Friulano is itself an interesting grape, unrelated to Tokay d'Alsace (actually Pinot Gris) or to Hungary's Tokay (a gorgeously sweet dessert wine made primarily from the native Furmint grape). Most Tocai Friulano grown in Friuli is jug wine-bland. Kudos to the creative folks at Livio Felluga for recognizing its potential to produce exotically fruity yet refreshing wines if yields were severely limited by careful tending of the vines. In short, this wine is a treat and well worth spending a little extra. (Imported by Clicquot)
Mirassou 2002 Chardonnay Central Coast ($10; California): Since Mirassou is best known for making big, rich Chardonnays, it may come as a surprise to see it showing up on a list of summer whites. While Mirassou still makes traditional Chardonnays, it has vastly expanded its range of offerings. This entry-level bottling is particularly impressive. While there is plenty of Chardonnay fruit, it is rendered in a crisp, refreshing style with minimal oak and considerable delicacy. Moreover, the alcohol level is only 13.7 percent, a modest level that makers of big, overblown California and Australian Chardonnay should seek to emulate if they want to make Chardonnays that people can actually drink and enjoy in summertime.
Hacienda Wine Cellars 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($6-$7; best buy; California): Much in the way Two Buck Chuck took over the name of the old Napa-based Charles F. Shaw Winery to market an inexpensive line of varietal wines, Hacienda was a respected Sonoma Valley winery that is now little more than a brand selling wines under the California appellation. However, unlike Charles F. Shaw and Two Buck Chuck, the new Hacienda's wines are much closer in spirit to those of the original Hacienda, which always made wines with a bit of extra panache. That's what I like about this inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc. It's light and lively, with gentle fresh herbs and citrus notes on the nose and on the palate, and a nice, dry finish. It's a zippy aperitif wine by itself, but will also match up well with white-meat fish and shellfish.