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Summer-Vacation Wines

Break out of your wine rut and explore the world with traditional summer wines from nontraditional places.

Fine Cooking Issue 112
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Got vacation plans this summer? Even if you don’t intend to leave your backyard, you (and your taste buds) can easily travel abroad through the wines you drink.

Summer wines should be thirst-quenching, light, and pair well with the fresh produce and grill-worthy fare that star in the cookouts of the season. Many varietals fall under this banner, but some of the most popular are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, rosé, sparkling wine, and everyone’s new favorite red, Pinot Noir.

People tend to reflexively reach for their preferred brands of these wines, but that’s a shame. Wine drinking gives you the chance to explore the world, armed with nothing more than a corkscrew and a glass. So, forget your go-to wines for now and discover some new summer wines from some unusual places.

The new Sauvignon Blanc comes from South Africa

Beloved for its crispness and green fruit flavors, Sauvignon Blanc has come a long way from its roots in France’s Loire Valley. This varietal’s broad popularity in America began with Robert Mondavi’s oaky efforts in California (marketed as Fumé Blanc) in the early 1970s and continued when New Zealand’s zingy Sauvignon Blancs hit the market in the late 1980s. Those wines are still delicious, but today, some of the most interesting new Sauvignon Blancs hail from South Africa.

Home to one of the most ecologically diverse and starkly beautiful wine-growing regions on the planet, South Africa is producing Sauvignon Blancs that express a rainbow of flavors, from flinty to fruit laden, depending on the microclimate of the grapes. Some of the best wines, made at the continent’s southern tip where the sprays of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans crash together, seem to offer a taste of sea air along with their lime and green apple freshness. These wines are beautiful matched with any fish dish you can dream up.

Italy is a rosé paradise

Pink wines are experiencing a renaissance lately, as the stigma of soda-pop sweet white Zinfandel from the ’70s and ’80s fades from memory. Today, most Americans drink domestic rosés from California as well as some fabulous dry rosés from southern France.

However, the most overlooked, underappreciated, and affordable source for worldclass dry rosé right now is Italy. Home to dozens of unique wine regions, each making different rosés from hundreds of different grapes, Italy is a virtual paradise for rosé lovers, especially those who dislike the oily sweetness that mars many late-picked and poorly made domestic efforts. Try the pale, barely-even-pink, floral rosés made from Cannaiolo grapes in Tuscany, or the copperpink, berry, and wet stone versions made from Negroamaro grapes around Salento, in the heel of the boot. Your summer salads, tomato dishes, and pocketbook will thank you.

Chardonnay reaches new heights in Chile

American wine drinkers are, for the most part, fully committed to their love affair with Chardonnay, and for good reason. When made well, Chardonnay can be among the world’s greatest white wines. After a recent period of critical acclaim for California Chardonnays with heavy buttery and oaky flavors, wine makers are shifting back to a higher-acid, mineral- and citrus-driven flavor profile.

At the edges of the high-altitude deserts of northern Chile, winemakers are cultivating this style of Chardonnay with remarkable results. Chardonnays from the Elqui and Limarí Valleys possess a stunning fusion of bright, steely minerality and exotic tropical fruit flavors. While sometimes diffcult to find, these wines are worth seeking out for the sheer adventure of tasting them, not to mention their ability to enhance creamy or buttery dishes, from pastas to vegetables to lean meats, like chicken.

Southern Australia: The next great sparkling wine region

Sparkling wine may not be everyone’s first choice for summer drinking, but it should be. Served ice-cold, it’s incredibly refreshing. And while good Champagne is a bit dear for everyday drinking, the rising availability and fantastic pricing of Prosecco and cava means that bubbly isn’t just for parties anymore.

As sparkling wine producers in the Northern Hemisphere (think Champagne in France and Prosecco in Italy) nervously watch annual temperatures climb (cooler weather preserves their grapes’ acidity), regions that were traditionally almost too cold to make sparkling wines (like England or even Denmark) are attracting vintners hot on the trail of the Next Great Sparkling Wine Region. While the verdict is still out on those attempts, parts of southern Australia are showing incredible promise.

Thanks to Australia’s ever-popular Shiraz, few people think of that country as a source for Pinot Noir, the traditional grape in most great sparkling wine. But the bubbly showing up on our shelves from regions like the Yarra Valley, Tasmania, and the Adelaide Hills offers a remarkable quality-to-price ratio and that crucial mix of mineral-savory-fruit flavors that make sparkling wine so delicious. Enjoy them on their own or matched with an incredible array of foods, from vegetables to seafood, and in particular, anything deep-fried.

Pinot Noir, now from New Zealand

Ever since American wine lovers were freed from their Merlot-suffused reveries by the movie Sideways, Pinot Noir’s popularity has exploded. Its acidity and bright berry flavors make it a great food wine, and a wonderful summer wine, too, when barely chilled.

Recently, New Zealand has joined the ranks of world-class Pinot Noir regions (others include Burgundy, California, and Oregon). Way down on its Southern Island, which stretches towards Antarctica amidst blinding light and blue skies, the Central Otago region is making Pinot Noirs of fantastic quality and distinction. The area’s cool temperatures and heavy dose of ultraviolet light make for a long, slow growing season that helps the grapes develop dark flavors of black raspberry and cherry, married with earthy or mineral notes. These versatile wines can stand up to grilled meats of many kinds, but they also make for fine sipping on their own.


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