Summertime can make a person (okay, can make me) a little lazy. Who wants to go inside for another beer when you could have an ice-filled cooler outside? Who wants to go to the store for a bottle of wine when you could grab a chilled white or rosé from your own fridge, ready to crack open or bring to a picnic or barbecue?
This is why—before the summertime sloth really gets us—I advise purchasing a case of wine for the months to come. With 12 bottles stashed in your fridge, you're ready for every last-minute day-drinking opportunity. With any luck, you'll even get a discount for buying all 12 bottles at once.
And that discount comes in handy, because I'm going to urge you to spend just a touch more on wine this summer in order to get something really tasty. I wish I could tell you that there are tons of perfect summer wines that you can nab for under 10 bucks. But the prices of land and grapes, tanks and labor, bottles and corks (or screwcaps), taxes, shipping, and advertising being what they are, you've got to stuff a lot into that 10-dollar bill. Getting great wine in there, too, is tricky. But you can get truly delicious wine for a little more. And I've been tasting dozens of bottles to help guide you along. Here's what I'll be stocking up on for summer.
Refreshing White Wines Under $20
Let's start with Muscadet, which is pretty much the perfect summer wine: Bright, brisk, and tangy with squeeze-of-lime acidity, it's polished but never heavy. Made from melon de Bourgogne grapes grown in France's Loire Valley, it always tastes a bit salty and chalky, offering the perfect mineral counterpoint to freshly shucked shellfish or grassy goat cheese. But, as it's gotten more popular, prices for some star producers in the region have edged upward. They're worth the splurge, but it's not like there are only two or three winemakers worth supporting in the region, and it's still possible to find a good bottle of Muscadet under $20. Lately, I've been enjoying Éric Chevalier's 2014 Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur Lie "Le Clos de la Butte" ($16), which is sourced from 50-year-old grapevines that grow in an area that was once ocean floor. It's fresh and angular, tart enough to get your mouth watering, with a wonderful mineral side that evokes the vineyard's quartz-veined soils. Get your oysters ready—it's a classic mineral-meets-mineral pairing that really works. I also dig Château l'Oiselinière de la Ramée's 2014 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie ($16). The vineyard, whose name translates to "owl's nest," sits near the confluence of the Sèvre and Maine rivers and is home to vines that are between 40 and 80 years old. The wine's fuller and fruitier than the stony Chevalier, but delivers a nice crisp cut that makes it a lovely partner for simple chicken dishes—add lemon, oregano, and thyme to really make them sing.
Portugal's Vinho Verde is another budget go-to for many folks. The cheapest versions tend to start light and zingy, but sometimes finish with a slightly bitter seltzer-with-alcohol flavor. (Not bad for sangria; not my pick for drinking straight.) But I'm pretty impressed by Dom Diogo 2014 Arinto Vinho Verde ($8): Made from arinto grapes grown inland a bit, it's smoother and richer than most of the region's affordable wines, with hints of melon filling it out. It doesn't have that characteristic fizz, but it's really tasty with a thick-cut pork chop. If you're looking for that delicate effervescence, and you're a fan of floral flavors like those found in elderflower liqueur, you'll like the Quinta de Azevedo 2014 Vinho Verde ($11), which is fresh and apricot-like, with a light body that invites day-drinking. I like to pour it in an insulated water bottle, like the Hydroflask, to keep it cool for a long, sunny afternoon without having to deal with ice or coolers. (This is especially handy if you're drinking in a park where alcohol might not be strictly legal.)
Of course, Vinho Verde isn't Portugal's only budget-friendly white. You'll find consistently tasty offerings from the Monte Velho label of Herdade do Esporão; the 2014 Monte Velho white blend ($10) is a mix of three native grapes that's bright and herbal (like a mouthful of bay leaf and oregano, lemon wedges, and a sprinkle of flaky salt), with enough richness to work well with grilled chicken or heartier seafood dishes.
The slight, tickling fizziness of Txakolina—and its searing shot of acidity—suits summer day-drinking perfectly. Gaintza Getariako Txakolina 2014 ($20) is intensely limey, grapefruit-y, and a little yeasty. Sourced from sloping vineyards near the coastal town of Getaria in Basque Country, it's about as refreshing as wine gets. This one's another excellent match for fresh oysters on ice.
A picnic board of charcuterie and cheese is often served with vinegar-brined pickles or olives to offset the richness of meaty, fatty snacks. A fruity, acid-forward German Riesling serves exactly the same purpose. Look for Winnings Riesling 2015 ($19) from von Winning in the Pfalz—it's tangy in a pineapple-like way, with a refreshing buzz of acidity. I also love the tart-mineral-peachy Stein Weihwasser 2015 Riesling Feinherb ($18). Time to break out the pâté. (Or pair either bottle with charred brats or pulled pork.)
If you're making Hamachi Poke or Salmon Poke for a party (or a cooling meal when you can't stand to eat something hot), a white wine that leans to the floral side is an ideal partner. Domaine Mittnacht's 2014 Cuvée Gyotaku ($20) was designed specifically to accompany raw fish: The wife of the winemaker is a Japanese chef, and the wine was created for her father's restaurant in Tokyo. It's a blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer, balancing aromatic hints of elderflower and ginger with tart, focused fruit.
Many affordable Sauvignon Blancs are aggressively grassy or acidic enough to threaten your tooth enamel, tasting mostly of green apple–flavored Jolly Rancher candy. I tend to avoid them. But I can't imagine a better pairing for pesto-tossed pasta or Grilled Chicken With Za'atar than Leyda 2014 Single Vineyard "Garuma" Sauvignon Blanc ($18). Grown about seven and a half miles from the ocean on Chile's breezy coast, this wine's remarkably mineral and complex, a glassful of green tea and green herbs. With hints of tarragon and bay leaf, oregano and piquant grapefruit, it's a serious step up from most of the under-$20 Sauvignon Blanc out there. (Note: It's worth it to spring for the single-vineyard version; the cheaper Leyda Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from vineyards around the valley, is decidedly less special.)
Alto Adige is one of my favorite regions for Italian whites—these are mountain wines grown on the southern side of the Alps, near the Austrian border. Kerner is one perhaps-unfamiliar grape that's worth getting to know. It's a relative of riesling, developed in Germany in 1929 and named after a doctor, Justinus Kerner, who wrote drinking songs as a side gig (and apparently recommended that his patients drink wine, too). Manni Nössing makes my favorite bottling, but at $30, it's a bit over my summer budget. My backup: Abbazia di Novacella's 2015 Kerner ($20), which is rich and dense enough to serve with grilled pork chops or creamy pasta dishes. It's peachy and aromatic, with a slight marzipan note. Also from Alto Adige: Elena Walch 2014 Pinot Bianco ($15), a tangy wine that balances creamy richness with Granny Smith–like tartness. It's great with Italian seafood salad or simple grilled fish.
Back in the US, the Brooks 2015 Estate Pinot Gris ($20) balances everything I want in a summer wine. I've always loved their Riesling, but this is a new one for me. It's bright, fresh, and mineral, thirst-quenching and easy-drinking, with enough fruit and floral character—hints of fragrant white grapefruit and Asian pear—to stand up well with food. Drink it with quick grilled chicken cutlets, or try it instead of a margarita with carnitas tacos.
Rosé All Day
I've bought myself a few bottles of fancy rosé—pricey (and pretty rare) wines from Bandol, along the coast of Provence. They're delicious, but precious; I feel guilty opening a bottle when I know these wines may get even better with age. For picnics and barbecues—and hot nights with takeout—I want something that's still really tasty, but demands a little less ceremony and a little less cash.
I've found my answer in the Loire. When I feel like a juicy rosé that everyone in the crowd will love, my go-to is a liter (or two) of the friendly bulldog: Le Sot de L'Ange 2015 La Boutanche Rosé. (A few different winemakers sell bottles as part of importer Selection Massale's La Boutanche lineup; each has a different animal on the label.) This winner's made by Quentin Bourse from biodynamically grown grolleau, which is the third-most commonly produced dark-skinned grape in the Loire, after cabernet franc and gamay. It's a fruit punch of a wine, packed with creamy strawberry and nectarine flavors. It's supple and bright, with a grapefruit-y tartness to keep things in balance. I'd happily drink it straight from the bottle, but if you're a little more formal, consider serving it in glasses alongside platters of juicy grilled shrimp or turkey burgers.
I don't like to blab on and on about how a wine smells; chances are, if you're gathering with friends at a barbecue or picnic, you'll be more focused on the folks around you than on the aromas of what's in your glass. But scent, of course, is a big part of how we taste, and Emile Balland's 2015 Coteaux du Giennois Rosé (around $16) smells exactly how I want rosé to smell: like the breezes in a field of strawberries. The pale orangey-pink wine, made from pinot noir and gamay grapes grown in the Loire about an hour north of Sancerre, is quite tart and delicately floral, balancing subtle berry flavors with mineral-water freshness and lemony acidity. But it's hard to pick a favorite when it comes to Loire rosé, especially from Chinon, where some of the planet's best cabernet franc is grown. I buy Baudry whenever I see it, and fill my fridge door with chilled bottles of Charles Joguet Chinon Rosé ($20), sourced from cab franc vines averaging 30 years of age. It's bright and a little savory, more salted-tomato than strawberry. Drink it with lobster rolls or salmon rillettes.
Of course, there's cabernet franc outside the Loire, too. Not every winery makes a rosé, but Channing Daughters on Long Island's North Fork offers no fewer than six different ones, each from a different vineyard and featuring different grape varieties. The Channing Daughters 2015 Cabernet Franc Rosato (around $18) is pale salmon pink from spending just a few hours with its skins. It's silky-rich but bright, lightly floral, and almost saline, with a tangy citrus side and soft strawberry fruit beneath. I love it with poached salmon and crab cakes, but it really requires no accompaniment except a sunny day.
Summer Reds for Burgers and More
I usually think only about white wines and rosés when I'm stocking up for hot weather, but reds definitely have a place in the summer wine fridge, especially if you're into eating burgers, grilled mushrooms, steaks, or lamb chops.
When I graduated from college and moved to my first apartment, I went to wine tastings every week at Astor Wines in New York, and bought pretty much every wine I could afford (which meant everything they had under 10 bucks). Many of the best options in that category were from Portugal, though the country also makes plenty of high-end bottlings, too. And it's still true today: Take the Luis Pato Colheita Seleccionada 2012 ($10), which may just be the best value in red wine I've tried in the last year. It's an unoaked blend of two grapes native to Portugal: olivey-smoky baga and rich, floral touriga nacional, which is often found in Port. While it's not the kind of wine you need to contemplate, it's savory and deep, great with smoky grilled eggplant or lamb.
I generally avoid Pinot Noir under $25, because so many bottles have been oddly rich and candied, nothing like the earthy, bright Pinots I love. But Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuvée Pinot Noir ($18) surprised me. Sourced from sustainably farmed vineyards around Oregon's Willamette Valley, the wine is juicy and packed with cherry flavor that's cut with tangy acidity. It's like the ketchup for your burger.
Note: All wines except Château l'Oiselinière provided as tasting samples for review consideration.