Serious Summer Whites

It’s easy to crave simple and refreshing white wines in the summertime as the mercury rises. In fact, I am all about crisp, clean and refreshing wines this time of year—especially as a cocktail or apéritif before dinner. There is nothing like that $15 bottle of Sancerre that you discover at your local wine shop and stockpile, by the case, for the rest of the summer. But then there are times when you want something a little more complex—rich with minerality and layers of flavor—to pair with your more decadent summer dishes like a seafood paella or even a bowl of freshly made clam chowder. For those occasions you may want to reach for something a bit more complex. 

Here are some serious white wine varietals to pair with your more gourmet summertime dishes.  And remember—a wine can be complex without being pricey. Most of the wines below are actually quite affordable. 

Verdicchio (Marche, Italy)

Garafoli Family

I’ve always enjoyed Verdicchio when I have tried it, but I have never really sought it out. To me it’s always been just another Italian white. That was until I met Gianluca Garafoli of his namesake winery Garafoli—one of the oldest family-owned wineries in the Marche region of Italy. After sitting down with Gianluca for lunch in New York earlier this summer—and tasting through a number of different Verdicchios—I realized how versatile and delicious this varietal can be. This is not to say that all Verdicchios are this good, but Garofoli happens to be a benchmark producer of exceptional, terroir-driven Verdicchio—a varietal that has been cultivated in the region for over a century. Known for being incredibly versatile and surprisingly age-worthy, Verdicchio gets its famous minerality from the white calcareous clay soils found in the Marche. Minerality is something I look for in white wines. Without it you are often left with over-ripe flavors that are not kept in check, creating a sense of uneven flabbiness that is quite underwhelming—especially with food. The presence of good minerality, however, balances out the flavors, leaving you with a long finish, which I love. 2018 “Macrina” Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore DOC $15; 2015 “Podium” Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Riserva DOC $26.

Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley, CA) 

2018 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley

If you read my article Napa Nuances you may remember I discussed how Sauvignon Blanc is no longer the warm-up wine at Napa Valley wineries. In fact, it is Napa Sauvignon Blanc that initially inspired me to write this article.   

Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes to people’s surprise, actually thrives in Napa Valley. Yet for a long time, it played the role of warm-up wine to the big reds—namely Merlot and Cabernet—that usually follow in a tasting line-up. Not anymore. Across the board, vintners are no longer making Sauvignon Blanc for a little extra cash flow. They are investing in it big time—from farming, to specific clones, to barrels and concrete eggs.

Concrete Egg Fermenting Tanks at Cliff Lede Winery

Sauvignon Blanc is also a very versatile grape with myriad expressions depending on how and where it’s grown. “I would describe it as very chameleonic, says Laura Diaz of Ehlers Estate.” “It can be made in so many different styles. Farming is crucial to define the style too, explains Diaz. Too much shade, and we get greener aromas; too exposed, and the profile will be more tropical.” 

The soil and the site are tremendously impactful for the expression of minerality explains Diaz. “It seems that the most popular preference is to have a fresh, crispy and aromatic Sauvignon Blanc wine but it’s also a varietal that can age extremely well and can be very delicate and elegant.”  

Unlike Verdicchio (where I am admittedly a novice when it comes to specific producers) I am quite versed on Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, I have too many producers to list but I will try. And in case you are wondering, yes, Sauvignon Blanc has gone up a bit in price from what you may remember but that is a direct result of its quality today. Here are a few of my favorites: 2018 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($32); 2018 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc ($28); 2017 Gamble Family “Heartblock” Sauvignon Blanc ($90). ; ;

Albariño (Rías Baixas, Spain) 

Albariño is a highly aromatic, light-bodied white wine that grows mostly in Spain and Portugal. The Rías Baixas region of northern Spain is a particularly popular region for the varietal. High acidity, great minerality, citrus flavors, and even some slight saline notes make Albariño a fantastic choice for pairing with seafood dishes like ceviche, fish tacos and shrimp scampi. Palacio de Fefinanes – Albarino d Fefinanes ($20) is considered a classic example of this region’s style, which seems appropriate given the fact that this was the first producer to bottle Albariño in Rías Baixas, back in 1928. Fairly available, Palacio de Fefinanes was recently on the by-the-glass list at 3-star Michelin restaurant Eleven Madison Park—arguably the best restaurant in New York. For $20 a bottle I found it to be a delightful wine and a great value.  

Albarino is not just limited to Spain and Portugal though. In fact, it has been gaining more and more traction in the new world, particularly in Oregon’s Willmatte Valley which has a similar climate as the Iberian Peninsula. A number of producers in the Umpqua Valley and Rogue River Valleys in the southwest part of Oregon are also producing some good Albarinos. My picks? Treos Albarino 2017 (Willamette Valley) ($25), Abacela Albarino 2018 (Umpqua Valley) ($21).

Grüner Veltliner(Austria) 

Grüner Veltliner is a dry white wine that grows almost entirely in Austria, though some new world countries are starting to experiment with it. With flavors of green pepper and citrus, Grüner Veltliner is somewhat similar to Sauvignon Blanc. The name translates to “Green Wine of Veltlin”—an area in the lower Alps during the 1600’s that is now part of Valtellina, Italy.

Flavors of lime, lemon and grapefruit dominate this varietal, with a little white pepper on the backend and usually an explosion of acidity that literally pops. Such a profile makes Grüner a great food wine, especially with Asian food and richer seafood dishes.  

I chose Hirsch here because a) they are extremely consistent b) they specialize in Grüner and Riesling c) they produce a decent amount and thus are fairly available and d) their price-to-quality ratio is both superb and consistent. In short, if you’re looking for a quality Grüner at a good price you can’t go wrong with Hirsch. Try the Hirsch Kamptal Kammern Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein 2018 ($24 SRP). 

Back in the U.S., Von Strasser in northern Napa Valley (Calistoga) was the first winery in California to plant Gruner back in 2005. Their 2018 Lava Vine Napa Valley Gruner Veltliner ($30 SRP) is a good example of new world Gruner and worth trying.

Pinot Grigio (Friuli-Venezia Giulia/Dolomiti,Italy)  

Terra Alpina Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc

Pinot Grigio—like most varietals—can be a bit schizophrenic. The good ones are expressive, emblematic of the region and a pleasure to drink. The bad ones end up where they belong—in an end-cap at your local CVS. Fortunately there is an abundance of the good ones in marketplace these days, especially from Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region—the epicenter of this varietal.   

Terra Alpina (by Alois Lageder) grows their grapes in the foothills of the Dolomites mountains in the northern Italian Alps (adjacent to Friuli-Venezia Giulia). Sixth generation, family-owned winery Alois Lageder, works closely with winegrowers from the Dolomiti area to produce fresh and vibrant wines that reflect this unique terroir, for its Terra Alpina line. The 2018 Terra Alpina Pinot Grigio (SRP $16) has a brilliant light straw yellow color with flowery and spicy and some smoky notes on the finish. This is a Pinot Grigio you can enjoy as a cocktail wine but, thanks to its great acidity and minerality, will also pair great with food, including fresh fish, chicken, pasta, sauteed vegetables and other light to medium-rich dishes.

White Rhone Blends (Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc) 

Like a lot of wine regions, the famed AOCs of the Rhone Valley in Southern France (Chateauneuf du Pape and Hermitage to name a few) are known more for their red wines than their white wines. But that is not to say the white wines of this region are not spectacular.  And perhaps no name is more closely associated with the greatness of the Rhone Valley than M. Chapoutier. Yet greatness does not always come at a heavy price tag and while Chapoutier has a number of wines that will set you back hundreds of dollars, they also have wines like their M. Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage La Petite Ruche Blanc 2016(SRP $35), that are more affordable and still of great quality. Typical of a white Rhone blend, you will find flavors bursting with sweet stone fruits (peach and apricot) and marzipan, offset with lemony acidity and white pepper on the finish.