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Summer Food, Meet Your Match

Which wines to drink with what you’re eating right now, and why. 

Fine Cooking Issue 118
Photos: Scott Phillips
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The tastes of summer are sublime: sweet, ripe tomatoes, freshly caught pan-fried trout, sizzling grilled sirloin, corn on the cob glistening with melted butter, juicy, fragrant slices of melon. Perfect, right? Not quite. Not until you find a mouthwatering wine to go with each one. Join me for a stroll down the summer wine aisle and discover just what you should be drinking right now.
Explore the best food and wine pairings of the season through these 10 bottles and read on to understand the qualities that guide those pairings.

Tuscan Chianti for ripe tomatoes

The old saying that “what grows together, goes together” is especially true when it comes to tomatoes and Italian red wines. In particular, Chianti, the Tuscan red made from Sangiovese grapes, is one of the best possible matches for tomato-based dishes because it has terrific acidity to match the acidity in the tomatoes, as well as earthy, sun-dried tomato aromas. Ripe, raw summer tomatoes need Chianti’s strong seam of acidity, or the wine will taste flabby and dull by comparison.

Other Italian reds to try with tomatoes include Barbera, Primitivo, and Dolcetto, as well as acidic reds from cool-climate regions, like Pinot Noir from Oregon or New Zealand. These varietals have enough tartness and ripe, red fruit aromas to stand up to tomatoes, whereas wines from warmer climates, such as California and Australia, are often too soft to hold their own.

Acidic whites for the catch of the day

Whatever your summertime seafood craving may be—from a New England-style clambake to a New Orleans crayfish boil to a whole grilled black sea bass—you need a zesty, acidic white wine to go with it. Acidity in wine is a good thing; it’s like a wedge of lemon squeezed over fish to bring its flavor forward and cut through its richness. Dry Riesling and Pinot Grigio have this palate-cleaning acidity, ensuring that each bite tastes just as good as the first. These wines also have lovely, delicate lime aromas that won’t overwhelm the seafood.

That said, how you prepare your seafood will influence your wine choice. If you’re going to grill your fish and serve it with, say, a fruit salsa that’s both sweet and peppery, stick with a white wine with just a touch of sweetness (instead of a bone-dry white), like an off-dry Riesling. On the other hand, blackened or spice-rubbed seafood dishes cry out for a light red wine—yes, that’s right, red wine with fish—that can stand up to the seasonings, like a Pinot Noir or Gamay.

Big, honkin’ reds for grilled meats

Most of the wines we pair with summer meals (and hotter temperatures) tend to be light and low in alcohol, like rosé and Vinho Verde. But there’s one delicious exception: grilled meat. When there’s juicy steak, ribs, or burgers sizzling away on the grill, you need a big, bold red wine to muscle in alongside the meat’s rich, smoky flavor. Go for Australian Shiraz, California Zinfandel, or Rhône Valley Syrah—they’re loaded with fleshy, dark-fruit aromas and have the heft to match your meat. Even grilled chicken works with this pairing because of those charred flavors. Slathering on a tangy barbecue sauce? Not a problem—wines like these have a ripe-berry richness that tastes good with zesty flavors, too.

But what about Bordeaux, you ask? Forget it. Even though that region’s elegant red wines may be a traditional pairing for beef, the subtle nuances of most Bordeaux reds are lost in the smoke, fresh-cut grass, and suntan lotion aromas of the backyard. Serving such a wine now would be like dragging your carved, brocade divan out to the grass—use a lawn chair, for heaven’s sake! If you must have Cabernet (the varietal included in most Bordeaux blends), go for the fruity, bold, New World styles of California, Washington, or Chile. Argentina’s Malbec also does well with grilled meats because they’re plush, robust reds that straddle the styles of Cabernet and Merlot.

Buttery whites for fresh corn

Generally, the more oak in a white wine, the more that wine will clash with food. Oak’s primary flavors are butterscotch and vanilla, which tend to clobber delicate foods or make them taste dull and bitter. But that fresh, sweet corn you’ve just boiled and are now slathering with butter is a perfect match for the oaky, buttery Chardonnays of California, Chile, and Australia. The best wines will wrap themselves around corn’s rich sweetness, adding another layer of buttery flavor.

If you’re part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, then the round, unctuous, full-bodied white wines of the Rhône Valley, such as Roussanne and Marsanne, also work very well with a corn feast.

Sweet wines for summer fruit

It can be tricky to pair wine with fruit because the latter is so sweet, but the two can work well together when the wine has just a touch of sweetness. Italy’s Moscato d’Asti has a natural grapey-honeysuckle fl avor that is delicious with fresh-cut melons, peaches, and plums. And late-harvest wines, whose fully ripened grapes are picked later in the season for more natural sugars, are ideal with end-of-summer raspberries, which are wonderfully sweet-tart.

The fruits of summer also work with ultra-sweet dessert wines, such as ice wine and Sauternes. Give this experiment a try: Drop a raspberry into a glass and pour a dessert wine over it—this pairing works so well because the tartness of the raspberry is met, matched, and married by the sweetness of the wine. It’s the same sensory contrast you feel while watching a blazing summer sunset as the evening’s chilly air cools your cheeks and shoulders. Now take a sip of that wine, crush the berry in your mouth, and you’ll see just what I mean.


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