What is the Quintessential Summer Red Wine?

Light red wines have become increasingly fashionable of late, especially in the heat of summer, when it's only fitting to throw the bottles on ice. Jon Bonné on what makes for an ideal summer red, plus a showdown of the PUNCH team’s favorite chillable picks.

If you’re gathered in deep Brooklyn to taste a bunch of red wine on a summer afternoon, what you clearly want is a temperature somewhere north of 90 and humidity so high you can swim through the air to reach your wine glass. If ever we needed a day to make our point about summer red wines, this was it. New York can be helpful that way.

Light, chillable red wines are a favorite topic among the PUNCH crew, enough that we decided to have a mini-showdown to choose favorites for this season. It’s not just that we love lighter red wines; it’s that we have come to appreciate their greater purpose. For one thing, you can’t live on rosé alone. But, and our sweaty tasting reminded us of this, there is a serious need for wines that serve the usual purpose of red—a deeper sense of fruit, a bit of tannin for food—but that can also be left to chill in an ice-filled cooler.

If it seems like we’re fixated on the idea of light summer reds, that might be because just a few years ago, this subset of wine was still a novelty. It was only too recently that the era of big reds was upon us, and lightness, in the view of that era’s critics, equalled weakness.

Snap, and things change. Perhaps the weird insecurities about how much body and weight a red wine needs went away; perhaps the old fears about lightness—that it represented an unsuccessful attempt to get your grapes ripe—were diminished by better farming. Either way, red wine can now display its emo side without fear. And for many of us, lightness is now a key quality for reds.

Hence the many fashionable reds trending today. I’m not even talking about the Jura, trendy as it is, so much as grignolino and ruchè from Piedmont, frappato from Sicily and schiava from the far north; the current pop frenzy for gamay in all its forms; the refreshing reds of the Loire; and, of course, reds from the southerly wine parts of Germany. It is not coincidental that those wines tend to be the punch lines for bad jokes made by insecure cabernet drinkers. At the heart of every bottle of trousseau or trollinger lies the principle that big reds might not be that fun after all.

But summer is hardly the time to get into yet another debate about style. It’s a time to drink delicious, refreshing wine. So we had several members of the PUNCH family bring their favorite summer reds to the office. Summer wine showdown, y’all.

I mentioned these wines are close to our hearts, and, thus, it’s no surprise some of our winners—we tasted blind—were bottles that we have recommended before. At the top of our (very informal) ranking was one of my choices (and personal summer favorites): the Broc Cellars Valdiguié from Solano County in California, although Germany rallied, too, with the Enderle & Moll Pinot Noir from Baden, one of Talia’s choices, and the Andi Knauss Trollinger from Württemberg (another of mine, but also effectively a PUNCH house wine, in summer or otherwise).

Contributing Editor Megan Krigbaum offered up a hit with the Crivelli Castagnole Monferrato Ruché, one of the best examples of that little-known Piedmontese grape I’ve had in years. And we ended up gravitating back to two other perennial hits, the Domaine de la Grand’Cour Chapelle des Bois Fleurie from Beaujolais (Talia and I both nominated that wine), and the Valle Dell’Acate Frappato from Sicily (nominated by Managing Editor Bianca Prum), although neither tasted that interesting at first. When we re-tasted them later, however, it was clear the bottles had some slight flaws, which points out a good summer-red axiom: People often say a very cold white wine hides its flaws, but putting a chill on a red only highlights its shortcomings. Raw tannins taste even more grating; out-of-balance acidity becomes jarring.

A couple other observations: It was interesting that the Jura, that current darling, wasn’t in the mix. While the region’s wines are light enough for summer, they also can be a bit self-serious for the beach—wearing their black while everyone else is in a neon bikini. And while the cabernet franc-based reds of the Loire are wonderful, some of their herbal aspects and tannins get awkward with a chill. Think of them for fall, which is also what we did in the case of another go-to fave, the Gulfi Rossojbleo from Sicily. Rossojbleo is made from nero d’avola, a grape usually thought of as rugged and dark, but in this case it was juicy and showing a fennel-seed sweetness—although a tarry aspect made us think more of autumn.

And that, candidly, was about as much thought as we decided to put into summer reds. It’s not a topic that requires too much more. So we poured more valdiguié into our glasses, and kept sweating our way through a New York summer.

2014 Broc Cellars Solano County Green Valley Valdiguié | $26
Valdiguié is one of those great California mysteries: For most of the 20th century it was thought to be gamay and made as America’s answer to Beaujolais. Ultimately, it was revealed to be an obscure native southern French grape and largely fell into obscurity. Recently, however, Berkeley’s Chris Brockway and a handful of other California upstarts have been reviving it. It is that perfect thing California can (but often has chosen not to) do: a relatively light, refreshing red that has no shortage of fruit on offer. Brockway’s comes from an unlikely spot—the exurbs just east of Napa—and it’s punchy in its fruit, a mix of dark purple and sour cherry, with a violet aspect for nuance. Picnic this. [Buy]

2014 Enderle & Moll Baden Pinot Noir | $28
This duo has found a loyal following on what seems like an unexpected principle: making ethereally light pinot noir from the Baden area of Germany, just over the border from Alsace. There was a time—still is, probably—when Germany had a bit of insecurity on red wines; the heartier the better. But today Baden (and Württemberg, see below) have made peace with their tendencies for light red wines, just in time for the world to see things their way. This is Enderle & Moll’s basic wine, which finds the delicious aspects of pinot’s lightest side: sour berries, an intense iodine-like mineral side and a cilantro-like herbal note. Importer/Distributor: Vom Boden [Buy]

2014 Weingut Knauss Württemberg Trollinger | $20
Andi Knauss has pretty well perfected the summer red genre, with a grape—trollinger, aka schiava—whose lightness was once considered a character fault. There’s a rosé version that’s equally delicious. This barely qualifies as more than rosé, but there’s tannin here—just enough to provide that filament of gravitas that a summer red needs. Mostly, though, the hibiscus and wild strawberry make you think of a great agua fresca. Team PUNCH drinks a lot of this, and without apology. Importer: Selection Massale [Buy]

2015 Crivelli Castagnole Monferrato Ruché | $23
The Crivelli family has been in Castagnole Monferrato, northeast of Asti, since the mid-19th century, and in these parts, where the easy money is in barbera, they specialized in ruché and grignolino (plus a bit of barbera and, oddly, syrah). In other words, they are the summer-red masters. It’s intensely floral—think geraniums—with muddled cherry fruit and both a delicacy and a subtle bitterness. Importer/Distributor: Jan D’Amore Wines [Buy]

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