Convention suggests one ought to uncork only crisp white wines between Memorial Day and Labor Day, in part to cope with humid outdoor temperatures.
Yet a savvy wine drinker knows this does not always hold true. It’s completely possible, and in fact decadent, to sip a red wine with summer salads, grilled foods, seafood, and highly anticipated in-season ingredients like tomatoes and asparagus.
Some of the best summer food-wine pairings debunk the summer-whites trend. For example, consider a glass of Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France, with a Margherita pizza where the wine’s subtle herbaceous quality matches the chopped basil and sliced tomatoes. Or a French Rosé sipped with a Salade Niçoise, a pairing I enjoyed immensely at a new hotel (Beach House) on Providenciales, Turks & Caicos.
The key is to look for a red wine light in body and low in tannins, as well as soft and fruit-forward, and with very little oak on the palate.
French wines are rich with possibility. “Gamay is a favorite of a lot of sommeliers for summer reds,” says Jason Wagner, sommelier and wine director at Henri and The Gage in Chicago. “Loire Valley reds are underrated. Beaujolais is a great introduction for a lot of people. It’s kind of a ‘gateway drug’ to the reds.”
Haley Guild-Moore, wine director at The Stock and Bones Company (Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, Salt House, Irving St. Kitchen, and Corners Tavern), completely agrees, especially if grilled meats—a summertime staple—are involved. “Cru Beaujolais and grilled pork are always a delicious pairing,” she says. She also turns to Bugey Cerdon, a sparkling Rosé from Eastern France as a meat match: “It’s awesome with charcuterie and cured meats. It’s really floral and aromatic.”
Rosé Rules the Summer
Crisp, chilled Rosé is a natural choice to suggest to diners who aren’t heavy red-wine drinkers. “Rosé is a big summer wine and what’s nice about it is that it’s refreshing but also structured like a red wine with a long finish,” says Josh Cafasso, sommelier at Penrose Room, a restaurant at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I still think the U.S. market doesn’t understand how great Rosé is.” He prefers Rosés from the South of France, such as Provence, and enjoys sipping them alongside Salade Niçoise.
Susan Lueker, winemaker at SIMI Winery in Sonoma County, California, loves to drink Rosé—along with Pinot Noir—with Salade Niçoise during the warmer months too. Also, she notes, “We do a pizza here at the winery’s café that has feta cheese and strawberries and it goes well with Rosé. The little bit of fruit helps pop the flavor.”
Wagner plans to extend Henri’s Rosé offerings come summer, particularly as a tie-in to the restaurant opening its patio for the season. At another Chicago restaurant, The Boarding House, owned by Alpana Singh—one of only 18 female master sommeliers— Rosés will rule this summer, she says, particularly since red wines have dominated the wine list since the restaurant opened in December. The wine list, which features 500 selections, is heavy on classic wine regions in Italy, Spain, and France. Because many diners seek out The Boarding House for a celebratory occasion, they instinctively turn to red wines. Singh hopes to steer them into Rosé or even lightly chilled red wines. “I have Rosé on the menu all year long, from a pale blush to a deep cranberry color,” explains Singh.
“Don’t forget to chill your red wines in the summer: That’s the best advice I can offer,” says Singh. During the summer months, Dolcetto and Barbera—two Italian red-wine grape varietals—when slightly chilled “have an edge.”
Chill Selectively, Pair Creatively
Indeed, many red wines do well in summer when slightly chilled. But you need to know a little bit about the wine because not all reds—particularly those heavy on oak or made from heavy-bodied red-wine grapes—need it. “You don’t want to chill down a little of Opus One,” says Wagner. Curious about what red wines to chill? “Any kind of red wine that has less tannins in it, like Gamay or Beaujolais, Pinot Noir for sure, and Italian reds too,” says Singh.
A slight departure from Rosé, but with a similar flavor profile, is Schiava, which is an Italian red-wine grape varietal. “I tend to think of reds that are light and aromatic, particularly Schiava, almost Rosé-like in weight and style,” says Guild-Moore.
Quite a few Italian red wines are appropriate for summer drinking. “Frappato, primarily from Sicily, Italy, is going to be the big wine for the summer,” predicts Singh. This light-bodied grape is less common in the United States but quickly becoming a favorite for its fresh and fruity appeal that’s similar to Beaujolais.
“Frappato, from Sicily, is a quintessential summertime red that’s high in acid with no tannins,” says Wagner. “It does really great with a slight chill on it.” Wagner likes to pair a glass of Sangiovese, from Tuscany, Italy, with an heirloom-tomato dish. Moore also turns to Italian wines when choosing what to sip with tomatoes. “Tomatoes can be kind of fun, depending on how they are prepared,” she says. Her favorite tomato pairing is Schiava.
While fish may be the assumed entrée choice come summer, meats can work just as well too, particularly if the preparation is tweaked. “It’s a time of year when we’re moving away from the braised dishes to the grill,” Singh says. “Whenever I think of summer I think of Mediterranean foods, like roasted eggplant, peppers, goat cheese, sardines, or octopus, anything to remind you of Greece. She also enjoys putting lighter sandwiches, and cheese or charcuterie boards, on the menu to contend with hot summer nights.
“I like to break that traditional pairing of white wine with fish and red wine with meat,” says Cafasso. “There are some instances where a Pinot Noir goes well with fish with a heavy sauce, especially Burgundy Pinot Noir.” (At Penrose Room he pairs Pinot Noir with a fish featuring an olive-based sauce.) He uses this rule when picking out a red wine to drink with meat when it’s hot outside. The leaner the beef, the lighter the red I’ll do,” he says, often opting for Argentine Malbec (especially with barbecue sauce, “to complement that smoky tanginess”) or Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. “A little bit of that fat component (in the meat) will balance out with the size of the wine.”
However, he rarely suggests a Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon between Memorial Day and Labor Day simply because Bordeaux, France, wineries rely upon old-oak barrels. New-oak barrels, as used in New World wine regions, result in less oak on the palate.
“Grilled chicken with a lighter Pinot Noir is amazing, so you get a little lightly smoked flavor,” says Lueker, who noticed during a recent trip to Cuba that all red wines in that country are, for the most part, served slightly chilled. “If you’re having grilled fish, Pinot Noir is your answer.”
Grilled foods during the summer present a short window of time to pair heavy-bodied red wines with these smoky, full-bodied meats. But you have to be choosy or the pairing will be a disaster. (In other words, keep the light-bodied reds with foods light on flavor and save big-bodied reds for bold cuisine).
“When I think of summer, I think of barbecue. To me, that speaks to Zinfandel or a higher-oaked, spicy Pinot Noir that’s a bit lighter,” says Lueker.
For restaurant owners and wine directors alike, calling out pairing possibilities to diners intent on the belief that red wine is rarely drunk during the summer is a true challenge. “We definitely do a lot in the way of staff training,” says Moore. “We don’t call out pairings on the wine list, however. It’s that art of suggested selling where you’re offering your guests a chance to make a choice.”
One tactic Cafasso often uses when serving a couple—especially when one orders a fish entrée and the other a steak—is to offer Barolo, an Italian red wine made from Nebbiolo grapes.
Encouraging diners to shy away from the convention that white wine is drunk during the summer and rarely is red wine even considered can definitely pay off. Not only does this subtle coaxing help move the red wines in your cellar, it is also an opportunity to flaunt wine expertise—something diners already expect from full-service restaurants.