The summer table is a playground when it comes to pairing food and wine. As the weather warms, a farmers market becomes a much more exciting place—and some of us have been known to get a little overenthusiastic when it comes to greens, tomatoes, and corn. We're eager to serve all that veg with fresh seafood, burgers, barbecue, and more. And some refreshing wine to wash it all down, of course.
To find a wine that'll taste great with your summer cooking, it's handy to remember a few basic rules. Consider both contrasting and complementary flavors—try serving sweet with salty for contrast; earthy with earthy for more of a mirror. Don't underestimate the importance of weight (big, heavy dishes will crush a feather-light wine) and tannins (you've got to give those guys something significant and fatty to work on or they'll steal the show).
But one of the most important things to consider is acidity, which helps to cut through richness and counterbalance sweetness; it can lift flavors and add an important freshness to the meal. When you're stocking up for summer drinking, it never hurts to tell your local wine shop folks that you're looking for wines with some of this bright, tart, good stuff.
Below you'll find nine of our favorite summer dishes and tips for finding wines that help them taste even better. Now's the time to buy a case—especially if your local shop offers a discount when you buy 12 bottles—so you're well-stocked for all your shorts-season drinking needs.
Lobster rolls are a little bit of luxury and a little bit of messy summer fun. Once you've tracked down a good-looking lobster and cooked and shucked it, you have two options. Give your sweet, sweet lobster chunks a thin coating of mayonnaise and stuff 'em into a top-split, white-bread hot dog bun lightly toasted in butter, New England-style, or dress it up in warm butter with scallions, Connecticut-style. A side of chips or fries is mandatory, and a seat at a picnic table on a patio overlooking the water is recommended.
As far as wine partners go, you're looking for high-acid, minerally whites that can support and cut through the dish's heavier elements without overshadowing the star ingredient. For example: stony Assyrtiko from Santorini; lean, lemon-zesty Chardonnay from Chablis in northern Burgundy; or fresh, herbal Pigato from Italy's Ligurian coast.
But if you're craving bubbles, another match comes to mind: Domaine Claude Branger "éClipse" Méthode Traditionelle Muscadet, which sells for about $19. It's the wicked good Champagne-style sub from a French region known for its seafood-friendly whites. It's bright and tangy with a mouthwatering sea-salty finish that accentuates the lobster's briny sweetness. Plus, the lively fizz and commanding acidity balances the richness of mayo and the toasty buttered bun.
FYI: For those of us with Champagne taste on a sparkling wine budget, the words "méthod traditionelle," "crémant," and "méthode Champenoise" are key. Generally good signifiers of quality (not to mention value), they indicate sparkling wines that are made following the Champagne process but come from outside the region, and could be made from a variety of different grapes. Crémant de Bourgogne tends to be a little more traditional, while you'll find richer examples of crémant d'Alsace, and fun-and-funky nutty crémant du Jura.
I'm not just saying this because I like alliteration, but burgers and Beaujolais are an A+ pairing. When you're eating a juicy burger, you want something that offers ripe fruit, fresh acidity, earthiness, and not-too-intense tannins; a wine that's effortlessly enjoyable and thirst-quenching.
My summer pick: Marcel Lapierre's 2013 'Raisins Gaulois', which sells for about $15. This entry level bottling from the son of natural winemaking legend Marcel Lapierre offers a great value for weeknights and large gatherings. The blast of spritzy cherry, strawberry, and currant is supported by a nice earthy-mineral undercurrent and soft tannins. In other words: It goes down as easy as that burger does. And in fact, this bright red is light and versatile enough to work with a turkey or salmon burger, too.
More Options: For something a little more serious, look to cru Beaujolais bottlings (especially from the Morgon and Brouilly appellations), which offer a little more substance and heft. Or, if you're loading on toppings like bacon and mushrooms, try a savory, meaty Syrah from the northern Rhône.
When a sommelier gets stuck while trying to figure out a great wine pairing, sometimes the most helpful solution is to take a look at the dish and ask: "If I was eating this in its homeland, what wine would I be drinking with it?" More often than not, it really works.
For salty, fatty bratwurst, I'm immediately transported to Germany or France's Alsace region where Riesling is king. There's a contrasting fruity-savory attraction between the two, with the grape's juicy peach and ripe pear notes balancing out the meaty pork sausage. While sweeter bottles can work well, I'm particularly a fan of the dry, slightly fuller expressions from Germany's Pfalz and Rheingau regions. There are tons of delicious options, and many are remarkably affordable.
For 17 bucks, Von Winning's 2013 Riesling provides a great example; it's fruity and lushly textured but still dry, with a nice weight behind it. And the tart, prickly lemon and green apple acidity can cut through the richness of the sausage while playing off the sourness of some accompanying 'kraut.
But if we're talking spicy Italian sausage, shifting over to a red from Calabria or Sicily feels like the logical move. The cuisine from these southern regions is no stranger to heat and spice and the local wines prove to be worthy partners. You'll find vibrant dry reds with earth and spice that are better equipped to manage the burn than a bigger higher-alcohol option, which can amplify heat on your tongue.
Go for fresh, strawberry and plum-driven Nero d'Avola-Frappato blends or introduce your friends to Gaglioppo. Try Statti's 2013 Gaglioppo, which runs about $19, and offers a lean and not-too-aggressively tannic expression of this native Calabrian grape. It has a wild, zesty red fruit acidity and smoky earthiness that helps tame the bold seasonings.
Not certain how to cook those sausages? Check out The Food Lab's tips.
The important thing you have to keep in mind about fajitas is that it's a show with an ensemble cast. Sure, the charred strips of flank steak get top billing, but there are also grilled peppers, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, and shredded cheese wrapped up in the mix. This kitchen sink of flavors and textures requires an all-arounder kind of wine: not so light and subtle that it gets lost in the crowd and not so bold that it crushes the competition.
My go-to is a Grenache/Syrah-based red from southern France's Languedoc-Roussillon or Côtes du Rhône, such as Domaine Gris des Bauries 2011 'Duo des Achaux', which sells for around $18. This rustic, medium-bodied wine has a nice blend of spice, smoke, vegetal, and red fruit flavors to complement the various grilled elements of the dish, and just enough tannic grip to take on the steak. There's also plenty of juicy acidity to refresh you between mouthfulls of fatty guac and sour cream.
Ceviche and Aguachile
When it gets hot enough that you just don't want to cook at all, these cool seafood dishes are as refreshing as a dunk in the pool. Part of what helps: that tart acidity in the marinade. But match your bright ceviche with a lean white wine with piercing acidity and you'll be left pucker-faced with a strung-out palate. The subtleties of the fish would get lost and the heat from the jalapeño exacerbated. On the other hand, you don't want a wine that's too sweet or low in acidity either; it would just end up feeling flat and dull with the dish.
What works? Something like a Pisco Sour, which also gives us some hints on what to look for in a wine: tangy citrus flavor that's rounded out by a little weight and rich texture. Look for dry, not-too-light-bodied whites that combine lemon-lime acidity with more lush, exotic fruit notes. I'm talking Spanish Verdejo or floral Torrontes from Argentina or even riper styles of Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Bodega Naia's 2013 Verdejo from Spain's Rueda region leads with a lot of tangy grapefruit, pineapple, and kiwi flavors that partner nicely with the marinated fish and help keep the spice in check. It also has a subtle bitter herbal-vegetal note at the finish that plays well with fresh cilantro. Plus the price is right at 15 bucks.
Charred, smoky ribs slathered in a sticky layer of sweet-tangy sauce require a charred, smoky, brightly fruited red wine to match. Good acidity and lush fruit bring out the juicy and savory sides of the meat.
Cabernet Franc, with its trademark smoky-spice-meets-grilled-vegetables-meets-raspberry flavor, is one winner, whether your bottles are from the grape's native Loire or great stateside producers like California's Lieu Dit or Hermann J. Wiemer in New York's Finger Lakes.
I'd also consider Blaüfrankish from Austria. It's a serious-sounding name for a grape that consistently delivers fun and delicious high-acid reds popping with cherry and black pepper flavors. Strehn 2012 Blaüfrankish 'Joseph', which sells for around $17, has enough of a dry edge to counterbalance the sweetness in the sauce while still offering plenty of grilled red fruit flavors to support the succulent pork.
Picnic Basket Charcuterie and Cheese
Part of me wants to say, who really cares what's in your glass? You're outside in the sunshine eating cheese and charcuterie and drinking wine. Life is good! But the truth is, if you have yourself a nice cheese and charcuterie spread, certain styles of wine can enhance the picnic experience. And you might as well aim for best-ever.
In this pairing, you're working with a healthy amount of salt and fat, so a wine with juicy fruit and bright acid plus a touch of sweetness can play really well in the game of opposites attract. Look for German rieslings with 'Kabinett' or 'Halbtrocken' on the label, or go with demi-sec Chenin Blancs from the Loire. Or get a little fizz with slightly effervescent Vinho Verde or Txakolina: these often come with picnic-friendly screwcap closures and offer a freshness that fits the setting perfectly.
But above all, when it comes to snacks like charcuterie and cheese, I crave dry sherry from Spain. I find that entries from the Fino and Manzanilla camps (the latter coming from a specific seaside town in the southwest) work best as their piercing acidity and salinity can easily cut through a hunk of rich salami or paté and nutty, harder cheeses. Grab a chilled bottle of La Cigarrera 'Deliciosa' Manzanilla, a bracing $13 sherry with the ideal tangy, savory, briny flavors to complement your picnic spread.
Grilled Chicken and Corn
This classic summer meal will get along pretty well with a wide variety of wines: tender grilled chicken, with its salty-crispy skin, and a side of sweet, charred corn could just as easily go with a dry, acid-driven white as it could a fruity, light-bodied red.
A classic Bourgogne Blanc Chardonnay works well—this type of wine's easy round texture, citrusy freshness, and mineral undertones are friendly to everything on the plate. Or, if you want to try something more bold, experiment with a peaty Fiano from Italy's Campania to really play up the dish's grilled aromatics. For reds, the always-dependable Beaujolais or a tangy Barbera from Piedmont make fine options, but I'm also partial to gamey, earthy players like Trousseau from the Jura and Schiava from Alto-Adige, especially if barbecue sauce is introduced to the mix.
For a simple grilled butterflied chicken, though, my top choice is a dry but lemony and lushly textured white wine that will play against the juiciness of the meat, such as the 2013 Pinot Gris from Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon's Dundee Hills. For about $18, this wine offers ample weight and ripe, slightly honeyed pear-apple notes to enhance the savory quality of the smoky bird and bring out the sweetness of buttered corn.
For many of us, the first sighting of local tomatoes in the market inspires a flurry of activity in the kitchen: we've been waiting all year to slice these juicy beauties and serve with creamy creamy mozzarella and fresh basil (ideally eaten on the patio). And then we need to eat our share of BLTs (with a thick slice of tomato, crispy bacon, and crunchy lettuce) and TMTs (that's tomato, mayo, toast, and it happens to be Kenji's favorite.)
What to drink? You're looking for something dry, refreshing, and adaptable to whatever you're serving with your prize tomatoes. All roads lead to rosé. With simple summer salads, experiment with easy, lighter-bodied styles (think classic Provençal); for a dish with a little more heft, like a BLT or fried green tomatoes, grab one with a little more weight and fruit to offset the fatty-savory elements.
What'll be in my fridge all summer long? Copain 2014 'Tous Ensemble' Rosé of Pinot Noir from Sonoma. It's clean and brisk with a mellow, mineral earthiness and subtle kick of spice. The tart, slightly salty quality of the ripe strawberry, melon, and yellow apple flavors works especially well at playing up a tomato's sweetness.
Note: Naia Verdejo was provided as a sample for review consideration.