Often when talking about wine with friends who appreciate its pleasures but are not really interested in the backstory or breadth of the subject, I hear comments about “comfort” levels relating to specific favored varietals or brands but not much about the desire to venture into something new. That’s a real shame as there is so much to discover in the world of wine and so many rewards that can grace the dinner table with just a bit of “courage” and exploration.
Looking beyond our own self-imposed comfort zone is easy because of the wide range of choices available in today’s market from both the New and Old Worlds. And our upcoming summer season presents the best stage and perfect time for the adventure to begin.
The colder fall and winter months always feel more formal and structured in both the culinary and vinous worlds. We confidently turn to our most trusted cabernets, zinfandels, pinots, syrahs and chardonnays to pair with the heavier, more protein-intense meals of the season. It’s pretty easy to stay in our comfort zone with those wines we’ve grown accustomed to while shying away from others that though unfamiliar can offer eye-opening pleasure and great pairings.
But as spring and summer arrive, our spirits seem to awaken along with our sense of adventure. Our lifestyle becomes less formal, meals are lighter and entertaining turns to the outdoors accompanied by the beautiful sights and scents of nature. What better time to explore some of the unfamiliar wines that await?
This is, by far, the most exciting time of year to embark on the journey of discovering something new to pair with the season’s lighter more enticing cuisine and casual atmosphere. Your adventure beyond the comfort zone can easily begin with a wide variety of whites, delicious dry rosés, intriguing sparklers from outside Champagne and many accessible reds we may have overlooked in the cooler months.
And the good news is you don’t have to break the bank to join the search with countless choices in the $12 to $25 range.
Aromatic whites really hit their stride when paired with an assortment of semi-soft cheese, fresh stone fruits and sliced apples on a warm summer afternoon. Some good choices are albariño, verdelho, torrontés, a crisp chenin blanc (or Vouvrey from France’s Loire Valley), an assyertiko from Greece as well as a dry or off-dry riesling. And what could be better than an aligoté (Burgundy’s other white grape) or a lovely roussanne with a grilled flaky whitefish?
Rosés from France’s Provençe (pale and elegant) or Tavel (richer and deeper in color) along with other choices from Italy, Spain and right here in California’s North Coast are perfect with a range of culinary delights and summer celebrations. Dry rosés are crafted from quite a few different local varietals depending on their growing areas and may be the most versatile category of summer wines. Although they are enjoyable throughout the year, dry rosé really shines when the weather warms and dining becomes more casual. They pair beautifully from aperitif to poultry, mild sausages, grilled veggies and lighter game meats.
There’s no doubt Champagne is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing sparkling wines. But our choices today go far beyond this admittedly magnificent region with its stellar wines and often lofty price tags. Prosecco has taken the U.S. by storm and is now the number one sparkling import. Yet great value and pleasure can also be found with Italy’s “other” sparkler, Franciacorta or Cava from Spain. Both are made in the Méthode Traditionelle of Champagne and available at more reasonable prices. There are also several great choices from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino that challenge the best of the world’s sparklers.
We needn’t forget our cabs, pinots and zins for summer but choosing a lighter style with less oak, tannin and alcohol will result in better pairings for both the food and warmer weather. Beaujolais and Dolcetto are great choices for a wide range of lighter meat dishes and best served slightly chilled. Cool climate syrah and merlot also offer great opportunities while staying a bit closer to many of our comfort zones. But just for a change, take a look at some tantalizing examples from France’s Côtes du Rhône, Spain’s Rijoa, Ribera del Duero and Priorat (all primarily from tempranillo and garnacha), nero d’avola and nerello mascalese from Sicily, exceptional selections from Portugal and carménère from Chile. These are just a few red examples that will brighten your meal and enliven the conversation.
My only problem with summer is that it’s over too soon. But while it lasts, I’ll continue to do my best in broadening my comfort zone by continually exploring new wines and new wine-growing regions that will add to the pleasures of the season and beyond. Join me on the quest and you won’t be sorry.
Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.