When it’s warm outside and our focus turns to summers at the lake, grilling, and watching the kids water ski, we want different kinds of wines than we do when we’re indoors and have less to distract us. We want the carefree, vinous equivalents of “Summer of ’69” or “Empire State of Mind,” and with all of the entertaining that we do this time of year, we need a pretty versatile soundtrack of summer wines to carry us through. Here are the kinds of wine you’ll want over the next few months—the best wines for nearly every outdoor occasion.
A signature summer wine.
This is your theme wine, the one that you buy cases and cases of and serve as your default house wine until the first week of September. It shouldn’t be too expensive a bottle—you’ll feel better about the pace at which your stash dwindles if you don’t spend too much. If you don’t have a signature summer wine yet, borrow one of mine: The Crossings 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley ($15) is the house summer white at our place. This Marlborough, New Zealand white is crisp and bright but not too lean, with hints of lemon, lime and grapefruit—and maybe even some melon—through the substantial finish. From the same region, Yealands Estate 2014 S1 Single Block Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley ($30) has racy lime, mineral and fresh herb flavors and is also quite delicious. If you're new to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the Kim Crawford 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($18) is a good place to start. It's a round, approachable wine with a pear and tropical fruit rather than citrus core.
My other go-to summer pours? Verdejo-based whites from Rueda, Spain. Lively acidity and flavors of pear and lime zest make Bodega Matarromera 2014 Melior Verdejo Rueda ($12) an enjoyable quaff. Sophisticated, minerally Bodegas Angel Rodríguez 2013 Martínsancho Verdejo Rueda ($22) is another very good choice.
A few fresh and versatile rosés.
Rosés are refreshing, food-friendly and beautifully hued; for all of these reasons rosés also make stunning summertime hostess gifts.
I prefer rosés that are fuller-bodied and flavorful rather than demure, which is probably why so many New World versions made my list. The Stoller 2014 Pinot Noir Rosé Dundee Hills ($25) has fresh raspberry flavors, with a bright citrus snap on the finish. It’s delicious, and killer with turkey burgers. Justin 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé Wine Paso Robles ($20) is tasty, racy and mouthwatering, with tangy plum and raspberry flavors. Case production is limited on Virginia’s Stinson Vineyards 2014 Rosé Monticello ($19), which is 100% Mourvèdre aged sur lie in stainless steel, but the wine is really enjoyable and worth seeking out for the nose—super floral, fresh garden, fresh pea—alone. The Chapoutier 2014 Belleruche Rosé Côtes-du-Rhône ($16) and the E. Guigal 2014 Côtes-du-Rhône Rosé ($16) are also both very good and are fairly easy to find. The Inman Family 2014 Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($25) is probably the most subtle of the bunch, with strawberry, mineral and fresh whipping cream flavors center stage. Read more about winemaker/owner Kathleen Inman.
Rustic, spicy reds for backyard barbecues and cool nights by the fire pit.
Hearty reds have their places in summertime, too, but the devil is in the details. Some people like to pair Zinfandels with barbecued food, but I find most of them too heavy—and too alcoholic—for hot weather. As a rule, try to avoid overly oaked and extracted reds wines of any variety this time of year.
To pair with barbecue I prefer Carmenères because their spicy, oftentimes herbaceous character really complements condiments and marinades. The Santa Rita 2009 Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenère Colchagua Valley ($20) has a round feel, judicious oak, and pretty mint and dried chili pepper accents. Inama’s 2012 Più Carmènere Colli Berici DOC ($20) has nice black cherry and plum flavors and good staying power on the midpalate, but feels more a match for grilled steak than burgers.
Looking for a few good Pinots? Check out our 12 must-try New World Pinot Noirs
There’s nothing herbaceous about the Brandlin 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder ($60), but it does feel like a throwback Cabernet—and that’s a good thing. There are no amped-up, creamy vanilla notes here; instead the wine serves up classic, outdoorsy flavors of bramble, nut, and tangy, just-picked plum. From a longtime farmer and grapegrower who has just started his own wine brand, Tom Gore Vineyards 2012 Field Blend Alexander Valley ($40) is a burly, Petit Verdot-dominant red blend with ripe black fruit and spice flavors. It will hold its own alongside barbecue or warm you when the sun is down, the air is chilly, and you’re getting a fire pit or beach bonfire going.
A few new-to-you white wines for porch swinging, poolside sipping and alfresco lunches.
Summer is the perfect time of year to expand your stable of go-to white wines because there’s so little risk involved: If you try a new white and it’s just so-so, throw it on ice a little longer (cold temperatures mask flavors, which is not a good thing if you love a wine but is a godsend if you don’t). That said, I don’t think you’ll have any quibble with these white finds.
I could drink the Dutton Goldfield 2014 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling Marin County ($30) all day. It is really nicely balanced, with bright but not bracing acidity, and sunny stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors that fade into a long finish. If you prefer your Rieslings a touch sweet (and you’re trying to hold your own against your beer-drinking friends), S. A. Prüm 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Mosel ($25) is a classic. It has German Riesling’s hallmark apricot and honeysuckle notes, and a low 7.5% alcohol content that is on par with that of many craft beers. On the next rack over from Germany at the wine shop look for the Joseph Cattin 2013 Pinot Blanc Alsace ($14). A terrific introduction to Alsatian wine, the Cattin has a steely backbone and a subtle pear-and-citrus flavor profile.
Whether there’s shrimp and chicken on the grill or you just like your whites with a little more heft, Rhône varieties fit the bill nicely. The Roussanne-dominant Anaba 2013 Turbine White Sonoma Valley ($28) has nice floral, tropical and stone fruit flavors and pretty nutmeg and graham cracker accents on the nose. Tahbilk’s 2014 Viognier Nagambie Lakes ($18) from Australia is clean and crisp, with pineapple core flavors and a dry, floral finish.
If summer just isn’t summer to you without favorites like Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, seek out the Elena Walch 2013 Castel Ringberg Pinot Grigio Alto Adige ($23), with mineral and yellow apple flavors and some unctuousness on the palate. It’s nicely balanced and delivers a lot of class for the price. The Durant 2013 Lark Chardonnay Dundee Hills ($25) balances a creamy mouthfeel with pure stone-fruit flavors and seems a natural choice for lunch on the lanai.
A special stash of “Thank goodness we have our house back” wines.
You’ve hosted your extended family at your beach house for the week without losing your cool. You’re a rock star. Whatever you may already know about wine pairings, I can tell you this: The best match for a killer bottle is a quiet house. At our place, this kind of quiet celebration means that it’s time bust open a really nice red. A few excellent wines to try are Swanson 2011 Merlot Napa Valley ($38), a polished, smooth Merlot with bright cherry and blackberry flavors along with coffee and mocha accents. It goes down so easily. Ruffino 2010 Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($42) is Ruffino’s first Gran Selezione-designated Chianti Classico, and it’s a find. Its tannins are nicely knit and its plum fruit is swathed in a bitter chocolate, iron ore and oak. When the evening calls for something particularly indulgent pull out the Il Poggione 2010 Brunello di Montalcino ($85), a wine that is so texturally beautiful and intricate it feels as though it were designed by an architect; there’s really nothing out of place here. Is it too young to drink? Probably. Should you open it anyway? Pop that cork, rock star.
What are your favorite summer quaffs? Tweet us at @fortunemagazine using the hashtag #summerwines.
Daryna Tobey lives in New York and has been writing about wine since 2001. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.