WINE EDUCATION 101: Summer Wines – Keeping it Light
Summer is finally here! With summer comes sunshine, warm weather and most likely some poolside/patio wine drinking with friends. So, what are some good choices for your summer wine drinking that will keep you cool and refreshed? The key to great summer drinking wines is that they have a lighter body and a higher acidity. These wines will be refreshing and delicious when served chilled. Yes, even light-bodied red wines can be delicious when served slightly chilled.
When referring to a wine’s “body” it usually refers to a feel of “weight” in the mouth. Imagine the different mouthfeel you would experience with water or non-fat milk, then 2% milk, and finally full-fat milk or cream. This comparison will help you begin to understand what “body” means in wine. Most varietal wines have a “body” that is typical for that grape varietal. Wine components that increase a wine’s “body” or “fullness” include sweetness, glycerol, grape and yeast polysaccharides, and phenolic content (in red wine). On the other hand, the perception of “fullness” can be decreased by acidity.
Acid is one of the main chemical constituents of grapes and gives wine “structure” and the ability to age well. The main wine acids are the non-volatile organic acids such as tartaric and malic acid which constitute more than 90% of the grape’s acidity. Malic acid is what you taste when you bite into a crisp apple. Tartaric acid is that tart taste when you eat grapes (as it is the primary acid in grapes). While acid can be tasted by taste buds all over your tongue, it is commonly strongest along the sides of the tongue and can often cause increased saliva production. High acidity or astringency in wines is often balanced with a little sweetness (or perception of) – this is referred to as a “balanced wine”.
With grapes grown in warm or hot climates, the heat will metabolize malic acid such that little is left by harvest – giving wines a lower acidity in warmer climates. However, cooler climate grapes will often retain more of their malic acid by harvest – giving grapes grown in cooler climates a higher acidity. In addition, some grape varietals are naturally higher in acidity than other grape varietals. If a wine undergoes “malolactic fermentation”, the stronger malic acid is converted to a softer lactic acid. Overall, it is the tartaric acid that ends up giving wine most of its taste of acidity.
Based on this understanding of body and acidity, we can choose some nice, refreshing summer wines. A great guide to grape varietal acidity and body is the “De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Table” (https://www.delongwine.com/products/wine-grape-varietal-table). This table is a visual reference to various varietals and their body/acidity levels. We can see on this chart that the Albariño, Aligoté, Colombard, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Torrontés, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho, Verdicchio, and Vermentino varietals all typically have a lighter body and high acidity. Any of these would make a cool, refreshing summer white wine.
Want to drink a red wine on a hot day and still be refreshed? Choose a red wine with a lighter body and higher acidity (avoid wines with heavy tannins), and serve it slightly chilled (about 55oF). A Pinot Noir is a great example, along with, Barbera, Blaufrankisch, Dornfelder, Freisa, and Sangiovese.
Rosé wine is also an excellent choice for summer with its light body and crisp acidity. Most Rosé wines have higher acidity as they do not undergo malolactic fermentation where the stronger malic acid is converted to weaker lactic acid.
Sparkling wine is also a great choice for your summer wine – and not just because the bubbles are so fun! Grapes that are destined for sparkling wines will be picked earlier than other grapes (for still wines). These grapes will often be picked when the Brix (sugar) level is 18o-21o so that they retain their tartness and acidity that is needed for sparkling wine.
To ensure that you have a wine that has retained a crisp, refreshing acidity, choose a wine from a cooler, fog-drenched region. Cooler climate wines will retain more of the malic acid that might otherwise become degraded in the heat. Some excellent cooler-climate wine regions in California include: Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Monterey, Santa Barbara County and others.
I hope you enjoy a cool, refreshing wine at your next summer poolside party!
Irene Scott, WSET-3, CSWS
Winemaking Certificate, UC Davis
OCWS Wine Education Chair