Seasonal associations are unavoidable with any food or drink: Warmer weather seemingly demands lighter fare, brighter wines, and, overall, a refreshing gastric experience. And, not coincidentally, just as our seasons change, the new, fresh white and rosé wines seem to pour into shops and restaurants. Cold, crisp wine just works when it’s nice outside.
Now, forget all of that, because there is an untapped treasury of non-white, non-rosé wines out there that were seemingly made for springtime.
While this tendency to pair wines with certain seasons definitely has plenty of visceral justification (big, burly reds are often unbearable in the heat of summer, while a light, crisp white is typically unsatisfying on a cold, snowy winter night), all too often this predisposition leads to wine drinkers ignoring red wines that are tailor-made for the warmer, breezy, enjoyable weather that April brings. In all fairness, not many reds really perform their best when it’s warm outside, but that’s no reason to eschew them all. So, what makes a great springtime red?
Acidity: This may well become a recurring theme in this column, but any wine that dares present itself without a bright, uplifting aura of acid just might as well not show up to the dance. This is especially true when the weather is warmer, and even more so when you’re dealing with the heavier fruit and tannins found in red wine. Acidity refreshes the palate, helps provide balance and structure, and leaves your mouth watering for another sip, rather than feeling coated and heavy.
Light weight: We’re not talking in boxing terms here, but rather the weight of the wine in your mouth. This is primarily why so many red wines seem out of place in warm weather—the ripe fruit, viscous texture, and palpable density are often at odds with your palate when the hot sun is beating down on you. Reds that succeed in warmer weather do so largely by being light on their feet, and thus refreshing and not palate-crushing.
Freshness and subtle tannins: In this case, these go hand-in-hand. Freshness is simply key, and while some red wines (especially those with heavy tannins early in their life) need time to age, youthful wines (preferably a current release from the winery) that have soft tannins are the best fit for warmer weather. Older reds often lack the brightness and zip of their younger counterparts and are typically not at their best at a cookout, while the forward fruit of freshly grown wines fits well with the season (and the food).
There’s a couple of other things to keep in mind as you embark on your own springtime red search. First, don’t pay too much (the best gulpers are often under $20), and second, don’t be afraid to chill these wines down (not as cold as you would with white wine, but enough to cut the ambient heat a bit).
These days, some wine shops will conveniently group their “patio reds” for quick and easy shopping this time of year, but it’s more likely that you’ll have to do a bit of searching and experimentation to find your personal favorites. Here’re a couple jumping-off points:
2009 La Tour Penedesses Cuvee Antique from Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($15): A Grenache-heavy blend from southern France’s Languedoc region, this wine may have a bit of age, but it is remarkably fresh. The fruit is bright and electric, like biting into a fresh-picked, almost-ripe blackberry, but without any tartness. The tannins are soft and supple, providing just enough structure to give the wine a hint of serious composure. Behind that, the brambly fruit is surrounded by herbs de Provence, eucalyptus, and cedar. The weight is remarkably balanced, at once seeming both substantial and fleeting, while the finish is crisp and clean. It pairs well with grilled meats or even a salad course.
2011 Nals Margreid Schiava from Alto Adige, Italy ($14): Alto Adige, located in the Italian foothills of the Alps, produces some of the most crisp, delicious wines in the country. This Schiava is lightly-hued, ruby in color with a bright clarity. It shows predominantly lively, fresh red raspberries, tart cherries, and delicate strawberries, while the background is herbal, spicy, and slightly savory. There are hints of smoke and clove interspersed, but that’s balanced by the lively freshness of the fruit. There is no heavy oak presence, while light tannins and refreshing acidity make it a perfect springtime wine. It’s great with cured meat and hard cheese.—Evan Williams
Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wineguildcville.com.