What and how to drink in high summer. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, Egon Müller presenting his archetypal summer wines at the recent MW symposium in Wiesbaden, captured by Arne Landwehr.
Warmer summers mean earlier and earlier harvests for wine growers, but what do they mean for us wine drinkers?
For those determined to drink red wine, high temperatures pose a challenge. Any drink should have an element of refreshment but once wine gets much above 20 °C (68 °F) it loses its precision and starts tasting more like soup. In fact one of the most common faults in more casual bars and restaurants is to store and serve red wine too warm. I often ask for an ice bucket or, in extremis, an ice cube.
In summer, or winter if the room is especially warm, I routinely serve red wines either straight out of what passes for our cellar, kept at a steady 13 °C (55 °F), or put the bottles in the fridge for half an hour before serving them.
Wine of any colour will warm up anyway once it’s in the glass – unless you live in a cold store. More of a problem usually is to stop it warming up too much, especially if eating outdoors in high summer. I love those vacuum-lined cylinders that keep bottles put into them at a steady temperature. The transparent ones are especially useful if there are multiple bottles on the table, as there tend to be on mine.
All sorts of red wine positively benefit from a light chill – particularly those that are low in tannin such as most young, inexpensive reds, mature rioja, most Pinot Noirs and lighter red burgundies. Softer red Loires, Beaujolais and other Gamays, as well as the whole new class of juicy young reds described in certain quarters as glou-glou, are actively designed to be served fairly cool.
You have to be a bit careful about chilling wines with lots of the natural preservative tannin, however, because their chewiness is emphasised at low temperatures. So, for example, a typical young red bordeaux or north Italian Cabernet can taste a bit too like cold stewed tea if it’s served too cool. American wines (wild generalisation alert), both North and South, tend to be made with riper, softer, gentler tannins than their European counterparts, and often have higher alcohol levels, so a light chill can be a positive benefit.
Higher alcohols everywhere are the result of riper grapes, which are themselves the result of higher temperatures and our warming climate. Alcohol can leave a rather hot impression on the back of the palate after a potent wine is tasted so, again, a little chilling does not go amiss provided the wine is chock-full of flavour.
Lower-alcohol reds, and whites, expressly designed to be refreshing summer drinks were becoming increasingly common even before the UK government announced that they would change the duties levied on wine to a complex new system determined by alcoholic strength that comes into play on 1 August. Britain’s storage facilities are already seeing record amounts of wine cleared out of bonded warehouses at the current duty rates before the axe falls in August.
Duty on all still wines with an alcoholic strength on the label over 10% alcohol will rise, marginally for those at 10.5% and 11% alcohol but by an extra 44p duty per bottle for all wines labelled between 11.5 and 14.5% alcohol – which means effectively the vast majority of wines. But the duty on wines labelled 15% or more, so all ports and sherries and quite a number of wines from California, the southern Rhône and even some red bordeaux from riper vintages, will rise by a massive 97p to £3.20 on every bottle. And VAT of 20% is charged on all duty of course, making substantial price rises likely in the autumn.
Duty on sparkling wines will decrease, by 19p on a bottle of champagne, but don’t expect to see champagne prices tumbling. On sparkling wines with an alcoholic strength of only 8.5%, duty will fall by £1.05.
The upshot of all this is that we Brits are likely to see an increase in the number of lower-alcohol options, of all colours and degrees of fizziness. It may even be that importers will encourage growers to pick grapes earlier than they used to so that the resulting wines are less potent. This is presumably part of health campaigners’ strategy. But time on the vine builds flavour and I just hope this doesn’t result in insipid wines.
No combination of grape and place is better at providing quintessentially summery wines with intense flavour at low alcohol levels than Riesling from northern Germany. Last month I had the pleasure of presenting 14 of the world’s top Rieslings, with their makers, to more than 500 wine lovers at the 10th Masters of Wine symposium in Wiesbaden. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me afterwards telling me that the tasting had changed their previous low opinion of Riesling. The CEO of Champagne Bollinger confessed that he had not a bottle of Riesling in his personal cellar but that he is now keen to change that.
The first two Rieslings seem to have impressed this crowd of professional tasters particularly. Both were grown by Egon Müller in the famous Scharzhofberger vineyard in the Saar valley near Luxembourg, a 2015 Kabinett and a 2005 Auslese with alcohol levels of just 8.5% and 7% respectively. UK duty on them will fall by more than 40p next month – though such is their reputation that they currently sell for about £140 and £450 a bottle respectively so this won’t make much difference. I have included some slightly more affordable alternatives in my list of recommendations.
These lower-alcohol, aromatic, high-acid, unoaked whites are prime candidates to be served at a refreshingly low temperature, between 7 and 10 °C (45–50 °F). In high summer, we like our drinks cool of course, but not all white wines respond well to a substantial chill. In general, the more potent a white wine is, the more of a waste it is to serve it under 10 °C. With wines such as a really full-bodied Chardonnay or Viognier, for instance, the all-important aroma and flavour will be subdued so you won’t be getting all that you paid for. A fine white burgundy such as Meursault or anything with Montrachet in its name is far from an ideal heatwave wine. If you must have Chardonnay, it would be better to head for one made in a cooler environment such as Chablis, the Sonoma Coast or Sta Rita Hills with their lighter body and higher levels of refreshing acidity.
If Riesling’s powerful flavour is not for you, then Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious high-acid alternative and seems to be becoming more popular. In California it is notable that Sauvignons have been replacing Chardonnays on wine lists. Apparently Sancerre, the archetypal Sauvignon Blanc, is currently the wine of choice in the Bay Area – but not its much less pronounceable neighbour Pouilly-Fumé and nor, strangely, the better-value alternatives made in nearby Menetou-Salon and Reuilly.
The best New Zealand and South African Sauvignons come into their own in high summer. Their pungent aromas will survive aggressive chilling and their ocean-induced acidity should provide the refreshment needed. Don’t be shy of putting the fresh into refreshment.
Can one mention summer wine without mentioning rosé nowadays? Definitely not. Some with very much more character than the typical almost-white Provence rosé are recommended below.
Archetypal summer wines
Fine Saar Rieslings
Peter Lauer, Ayler Kupp Stirn Fass 15 Riesling 2020 Saar 9.5%
€29.50 (2021) producer's website
Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken, Saarburger Rausch Riesling Auslese 2009 Saar 7.5%
£52 The Wine Society
Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken, Saarburger Rausch Riesling Auslese 2005 Saar 8%
£52.45 Lay & Wheeler
Superior Sauvignon Blancs
De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc 2022 Cape Town 13.5%
Terrapura, Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2022 San Antonio 13%
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2022 Marlborough 13.5%
From £16.95 Divine Fine Wines, London End Wines, Wine Trust and other independents
Blank Canvas, Holdaway Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2022 Marlborough 13%
From £18 London End Wines, VINVM, Vino Gusto, Shelved Wine and other independents
Ch Ollieux Romanis, Cuvée Classique Rosé 2022 Corbières 12%
£10.95 The Wine Society
Muga, Rosado 2022 Rioja 13.5%
Dom de la Ribotte, Cuvée Anaïs Rosé 2022 Bandol 13.5%
£19.50 Stone, Vine & Sun
Light, chillable reds
Rui Roboredo Madeira, Altos da Beira 2021 IGP Terras da Beira 13.5%
£8.75 The Wine Society
Les Vins Aujoux, Artisans 2020 Chénas 13.5%
£12.95 The Wine Society
Clos des Cordeliers, Cuvée Tradition 2019 Saumur-Champigny 13%
£12.95 The Wine Society
Dom Begude, Le Cerisier Pinot Noir 2022 IGP Haute Vallée de l'Aude 13%
£14.50 Stone, Vine & Sun
De Martino, Legado Pinot Noir 2021 Limarí 13%
£15.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Tasting notes, suggested drinking dates and scores in our 226,000-strong database of wine reviews. Some international stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.