THE SUMMER season means backyard barbecues, big events such as weddings and showers, and serendipitous gatherings like impromptu pool parties and after-work get-togethers on the patio. All great reasons to have a nice bottle of wine on hand, one that's refreshing in hot weather and inexpensive enough to serve to larger groups of guests without flinching.
We each have our own flinch point when it comes to wine. For me, a great summer bottle costs around $8 to $12, and when I find that great summer bottle, I buy it by the case, for several reasons. The first is convenience; it avoids the frenzied last-minute run to the nearest liquor store to buy four bottles of whatever looks good. The second reason is to save money. Many retailers give a case discount of 5% to 15%. Even if there's no case discount -- those retailers say that the price is already discounted -- you're saving money by avoiding unnecessary trips to the wine store.
Finally, it's just more relaxing to know that you're well-supplied with terrific wine, no matter who's expected for dinner or what's on the menu. We're all looking for ways to simplify our lives. The strategic summer "case buy" is one of those ways.
This year, the search for affordable wines of quality requires a different road map. The anemic dollar has caused many traditional European summer picks to edge past my personal flinch point. I fondly recall past summers that were pleasantly lubricated by oceans of better-quality Italian Soave and Pinot Grigio, waves of French Beaujolais from excellent small producers, and rivers of delightfully tart Muscadet, all of which could be ferreted out for around $10 to $12 a bottle, sometimes even less. Those days are gone, but other wine regions and countries have moved to the forefront of the affordable wine scene, such as Austria, Spain, California, New Zealand and southern France and Italy.
A serendipitous blend
To BE a great summer case buy, a wine should not only be inexpensive, but also be sippable on its own as well as complementary to a variety of foods. In white wine, look for a fresh, aromatic bouquet; a light to medium body; and a crisp acidity level to make it refreshing and to pair with lighter summer meals of salads, sushi, grilled chicken and fish. Stay away from big, oaky, high-alcohol wines, white or red. In hot weather they're tiring to drink.
Grape types that work well for summer whites include Gruner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino and Riesling.
For summer red wine case buys, steer clear of tannic, high-alcohol Cabs and Zins and look for lighter, fruitier bottlings made from grapes such as Tempranillo, Gamay, Grenache and other Rhone varietals, and various Italians, including Nero d'Avola and Montepulciano. (Pinot Noir would be ideal, but it's tough to find a palatable Pinot for less than $12).
Wines that deliver flavor and good acidity will stand up to summer's mixed grills, pairing well with burgers, portobello mushrooms, ribs or tri-tip. If the red can take a little chill -- say, a half-hour in the fridge -- so much the better. During warm weather, reds taste best at cool room temperature.
Whatever wine you're considering, it's important to check the label for the alcohol content, a pretty accurate indicator of the wine's heft and balance.
Wines with alcohol levels of 14% or more can taste heavy and hot during the summer (during the winter too, but that's another subject). And because higher-alcohol wines really pack a punch, they are a poor choice for pouring at a summer party, unless you have planned for all 18 guests to spend the night.
Though reds with an attractive and balanced fruit component taste great in summer, for case buys it's a good idea to avoid so-called fruit bombs, wines that deliver a blast of ripe cherry-berry aromas, a hefty dose of alcohol and not much else. Initially, fruit bombs can be seductive. Those first sips may taste great, but you'll become bored with them. It's like dating someone half your age. There's that immediate, in-your-face appeal, but no depth. They can't hold up their end of the conversation; they don't leave you wanting more. After the third date/bottle, you're asking yourself, "What was I thinking?"
For A buying strategy, there are several options. You can head to your supermarket, gourmet grocer, membership warehouse or wine chain store, and pick up what they're featuring in this price range. That can work; last summer, after a tip from Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer, I bought a ton of very good 2005 Louis Jadot Beaujolais at Vons, which briefly had it on sale for -- I swear -- $7 a bottle. (This year, the wine isn't as good and, needless to say, that price point is histoire.) Trader Joe's has terrific buys, but inventory differs from store to store and small lots sell out, so securing a case can be frustrating.