nyone in Europe in the summer of 2003 will not forget the dense, dripping, oppressive heat that gripped the continent between May and September. One of my most vivid memories of those sizzling months was a lunch I had in Siena — there are few things I like more than a thick Tuscan steak complemented by a precious bottle of Brunello di Montalcino — under an umbrella that blocked the sun but not the heat.
And the heat, of course, ruined it. Pulled from a shelf in the oven-like interior of the restaurant, the bottle was warm to the touch and tasted harsh and alcoholic; it actually made me sweat more. The wine improved a little after I asked the puzzled waiter for an ice bucket. But the meal wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
I grew up in Florida, and I’ve always been a big fan of summer. I love the slower pace of life, long days, and rising hemlines the heat brings with it. But as someone who has long preferred red wines to white, I’ve also looked at the warmer months as the doldrums of my wine-drinking calendar.
The easy way out of the dilemma is to drink indoors, preferably close to the restaurant’s air conditioner, though that eliminates summer’s great pleasure of enjoying a warm breeze along with a meal. Or just skip to the front of the wine list and order a crisp and refreshing white wine, which is what I do most of the time.
But sometimes only a red will do.
One key to summer red wine drinking is temperature control, as the icy bath I gave that bottle of Brunello on the sweltering afternoon in Siena illustrates. The rule of thumb is that reds should be served at room temperature, but that doesn’t include summer days when the temperature skyrockets. If the wine isn’t somewhere near 18 degrees Centigrade (no more than 65 degrees Fahrenheit) then you are well within your rights to take steps to correct that, whether by giving the bottle a few minutes in the restaurant’s freezer or in a table-side ice bucket.
Another key is picking the right red wine (with apologies to myself two years ago, an important and robust wine such as a Brunello was the wrong choice). Summer reds should be light, simple, and probably low in alcohol.
In Italy, hot weather when the vines are blooming yields high sugar content in the grapes, and that leads to high alcohol in the wine. As a result, the best bets for hot weather wines usually come from the cooler northern climates: some of the classic types to look for are Dolcetto, Pinot Nero, Refosco, and some of the lighter Chiantis and Cabernet Francs on the market.
Last summer in Piemonte I saw many grape growers drinking down Grignolino, a great summer red that’s on most decent restaurant wine lists. And one of the best choices — if you can find it — is what Italians call Barbera “vivace,” meaning a light and slightly fizzy version of the classic Barbera wine that matches well with almost anything, including summer.
If you aren’t sure if the bottle of red in your hands is a good fit, check out the alcohol content: a maximum of 12.5 percent means you’re on the right track; closer to 11 percent and you’ve probably got a winner.
Because these light reds are so, well, light, they aren’t really built for ageing, and are unlikely to improve if you store them for any amount of time. As a rule, don’t even worry about vintages: these wines are made to be drunk as young as possible and they are crafted so simply that a highly drinkable wine can be made from a modest vintage.
But my strategy for summer wine drinking this year will take on an additional consideration: settling an old score. That oppressive summer of 2003 led to the creation of some pretty good Italian wines. When figuring out what to choose this summer, I, for one, plan to drink as many of them as possible.