It’s officially summertime. Temperatures are rising and you are in desperate search of air conditioning, last minute travel deals, iced coffee and plenty of affordable, thirst quenching wine. What refreshing wines can you buy that will impress your friends, without having to break the bank?
Don’t worry, I’m here for you! I’m dedicating this blog post to the summer wines featured at my most recent wine class at Víno-Klub Brno. These wines are readily available on their E-Shop, with pickup locations both in Prague and Brno.
I strive to choose wines that are affordable, relatively low in alcohol and thirst quenching. There are literally thousands of grapes in the wine world, so why not try something new, perhaps unfamiliar?
This post will try to avoid the technical jargon of winemaking as it can certainly get complicated. Yet in order to get the full picture, I have included simple descriptions of vinification processes. In the end, wine is meant to be drunk and enjoyed, as it is the backdrop for any memorable night. Cheers!
There is no better way to start your summer than with a bottle of bubbles. Cava is currently one of the most popular sparkling wines in the world and the global export market is thriving. And for good reason. The wines are affordable, complex and may offer a similar flavor profile to that found in Champagne. The numbers speak for themselves : Since 2014 in the US alone, Cava sales have increased by 50%.
Codorníu “1551” NV | Penedés, Spain
Cavas Codorníu is the oldest family run business in Spain and is the 17th oldest family run business in the world. Originally founded by Jaume Codorníu in 1551, the company is presently the largest vineyard owner in Europe. With yearly production levels topping 35 million bottles, Cavas Codorníu is running quite the wine operation.
Cava traces its roots to Penedès, a wine region located in Catalunya, in northeast Spain. In the mid 19th century, an ambitious winemaker in the Codorníu family made a fortuitous discovery. Jose Raventós created a ‘Spanish Champagne,’ by applying the same vinification method applied in Champagne, France. This is a process where a secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle. In doing so, the carbon dioxide released from the fermentation process becomes trapped, creating bubbles.
Raventós thus produced a sparkling wine, made from indigenous Spanish grape varietals, that boasted the complexity, flavor and intensity of a French Champagne. Because of his ingenuity, Cava now appears on practically every wine shelf worldwide, and sparkling wine fans are able to enjoy affordable bubbles for every occasion.
The Codorníu Cava 1551 Brut is a sparkling wine made in the traditional ‘champagne’ method (méthode traditionelle) blending three indigenous Spanish varietals : Macabeo (Viura), Xarel-lo and Parellada. The wine spends 9 months on the lees prior to disgorgement, creating an autolytic quality backed by an aromatic, fruity bouquet. Notes of green apple, citrus and pear are immediately apparent, while the background elements accent toasty notes of brioche. By retaining just a hint of residual sugar, this wine is thirst quenching and dry, with a bright, juicy finish.
Tip: When seeking out a particularly dry or sweet Cava, here is a guideline for the residual sugar levels. I use this guide as a sweetness indicator of the wine. It can also be found on Wine Folly’s website, an excellent resource for everything wine.
Brut Nature: 0.0-0.3 g residual sugar
Extra Brut: 3-6 g residual sugar
Brut: 6-12 g residual sugar
Extra-Seco: 12-17 g residual sugar
Seco: 17-32 g residual sugar
Demi-Seco: 32-50 g residual sugar
Dolce: 50+ g residual sugar
If unavailable at your local shop, or if you are more interested in sampling something from Moravia, try Sekt, a sparkling wine made in the ‘méthode traditionelle.’ One outstanding example is Mikrosvín Sekt, a perfect pairing to grilled kielbasa and potato salad.
Terra Vizina Prosecco DOC Frizzante | Maremma, Tuscany
Terra Vizina, a family run winery based in the Veneto region of Italy, produces this delightful Frizzante DOC Prosecco. The name ‘Terra Vizina,’ meaning ‘close to the land,’ reflects the passion and dedication of the family to the vines. Their Prosecco explodes with aromas of stone fruit, peaches, nectarines and mint. It is juicy and light in body, with a fine mousse and soft bubbles.
Traditionally, prosecco is served as an aperitivo prior to a meal, as it is fresh, perfumed and lively on the palate. I actually find it an excellent pairing to Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, as its slight sweetness pairs harmoniously with their trademark umami and salty flavors.
Prosecco can certainly vary in terms of quality, style and price. But there is a bit of history that justifies its previous inconsistencies.
For decades, there were major irregularities regarding Prosecco’s quality levels. Prior to 2009, bearing any formal legislation or mandated control, Prosecco could have been produced anywhere, using any grape varietal or blend. It was confusing for the consumer. Practically any winemaker could bottle sparkling wine and call it Prosecco, with absolutely no reference to the actual Italian sparkling wine.
Yet a decade ago, after feeling the pressure from the Italian wine industry, Prosecco finally received a designated status as a protected region under Italian wine law. Today, a DOC (Designation of Controlled Origin) or DOCG (Designation of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) reflects that it must contain at least 85% of Glera, the primary grape varietal. Additionally, yields and production levels are carefully regulated and the grapes must originate in the Prosecco region. This transformed the entire industry, creating a modern benchmark for quality Prosecco.
The majority of Prosecco is produced in a slightly different way than Cava, Crémant, Sekt or Champagne. As opposed to secondary fermentation in the bottle, the base wine for Prosecco is placed into large, pressurized stainless steel tanks. These tanks can range in size, from 400 L to 4,000 L, depending on the winery’s production levels. The secondary fermentation, also known as the Charmat Method, takes place inside of these temperature controlled tanks, allowing the wine to produce its signature, fizzy sparkle.
Tip : When buying Prosecco, be aware of the sweetness levels. There will undoubtedly be a small amount of residual sugar in Prosecco, as it is inherently meant to be fruity and aromatic. Yet the sweetness levels can vary, as per the breakdown below.
Brut: up to 12 grams residual sugar
Extra Brut: 12-17 grams residual sugar
Dry: 17-32 grams residual sugar
An excellent example of high quality Prosecco hails from Valdobbiadene, a town in the province of Treviso, known as the birthplace of Prosecco. Prosecco from this particular region is enhanced by a fresh minerality, and can still be found for just 20 euros a bottle.
Mineral and Saline
Poggio al Lupo Vermentino 2015 | Tuscany, Italy
When most people browse the Italian wine aisles in their local shop or supermarket, it is rare to come across anything but Pinot Grigio. After all, Italy produces a staggering 300 million bottles of Pinot Grigio every year, leaving little room on the shelves for lesser known varietals. Yet the country boasts over 1,000 other indigenous white grape varietals that are absolutely delicious, complex and refreshing. So where are they hiding?
Cultivated thousands of years ago in Sardinia, Liguria and Tuscany, Vermentino is one of the oldest Italian white grape varietals. It is a refreshingly dry white wine that is often planted in close proximity to the ocean or sea. With its signature saline driven, mineral backbone, the aromatics are further pronounced by its stone fruit and citrus bouquet. A slight nuttiness, similar to shaved almonds, is commonly found on the finish. This slightly bitter element is one of the key components of Vermentino and is considered a desirable attribute.
For those of you who abstain from oaky, buttery Chardonnays or sweet Muscats, Vermentino should be your new go-to wine. It is matured in either stainless steel or concrete and is typically unoaked, allowing for a crisp texture and clean finish. The wines are meant to be consumed young, thus retaining a freshness and youthfulness. It is quickly gaining popularity, as it is the perfect compliment to a summer seafood boil or light pasta.
Translating to ‘Hill of the Wolf,’ Poggio Al Lupo winery was founded in 1999 in Maremma, a coastal, Mediterranean town on the western coast of Tuscany. At just 100 meters above sea level, their 35 acres of vineyards sit atop a soil rich with limestone and mineral deposits. The Vermentino plots comprise 7 of those hectares, located at some of the vineyard’s cooler sites. Poggio al Lupo’s Vermentino offers a taste of Tuscany, enriched by the cooling breezes of the Tyrrhenian sea.
If you’re unable to find Vermentino in your local wine shop, try Falanghina or Verdicchio, two dry Italian white wines that also offer pronounced minerality, fresh acidity and bright citrus fruit aromas. These wines are affordable and are typically priced between 10 and 20 euros a bottle.
Muscadet Sèvre & Maine
Château de la Malonnière, Muscadet Sèvre & Maine 2014 | Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, France
Muscadet is by far one of my favorite French wine appellations. The AOC region is found near Nantes, on the western tip of the Loire Valley, near the confluence of the Maine et Sèvre rivers. With its unique microclimate, the region is known for strong Atlantic currents and mineral-rich soils, containing deposits of magnesium, potassium and fossilized seashells. In the 18th century, due to the region’s prime coastal location, the earliest production of Muscadet was sold to the Dutch distilleries for their ‘eau-de-vie’ production.
The only permitted grape in the Muscadet Sèvre & Maine AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) is Melon de Bourgogne, a hearty, dry white wine grape varietal that traces its roots to Burgundy. In the 17th Century, a devastating winter frost struck Burgundy’s vineyards and Melon de Bourgogne was the sole grape survivor. This serendipitous discovery led to the grape’s eventual move to Muscadet, where its natural resistance to frost was better suited to the unpredictable, maritime climate of the western Loire.
When buying a bottle of Muscadet Sèvre & Maine, look for ‘sur-lie’ on the wine label. This ensures that the wine has spent the winter season in contact with the lees, or dead yeast cells. Although this may sound absolutely abhorrent to the untrained ear, this is, in fact, a way to achieve a richer, creamier texture in the wine, and is a completely natural byproduct of winemaking. Some winemakers allow their wines to mature for extended periods of time on the lees, in some cases up to 2 years. The resulting wines are robust, unctuous and richly textured, yet maintain their freshness and acidity.
Château de la Malonnière is a wine estate located in the AOC of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. Their Muscadet-sur-lie exhibits a mineral driven nose, with touches of citrus and green apple. The wine is refreshing, lively and bright, with notes of salinity and sea shell accompanying a dry finish. This wine is absolute heaven with oysters, yet any snail, clam, scallop or high acid vinaigrette would do the trick.
A popular alternative to Muscadet would be Albariño, a Spanish white wine grape varietal grown primarily in Rías Biaxas. Like Melon de Bourgogne, Albariño is citrus driven, with a slightly floral undertone and similar elements of saline and minerality.
Juicy and Bright
Fink Winery “Wetterkreuz” Riesling 2017 | Niederösterreich, Austria
If you were to ask any sommelier in the world, “What is your favorite white wine grape varietal,” 9 times out of 10, you will hear them respond with a definitive answer: Riesling.
But why Riesling? Apart from being one of the oldest German grape varietals, Riesling is a chameleon in the wine world. It is a grape that lends itself to elevated sugar levels, thus allowing for an extended hang time on the vine. Sure, there are super sweet Rieslings out there. But I have to stress this point : Not all Rieslings are sweet!
The German Rieslings tend to be typical of what you think of when you hear the name Riesling. These are lusciously sweet, with honey, apricot and lemon aromas. But don’t take the sweetness for weakness or instability. This elevated sugar content allows for certain late harvest Rieslings to have a tremendous aging potential. They contain an elevated sugar content, yet also retain high acidity, letting the wine mature gracefully over decades.
A delicious example of aged Riesling: Thanisch ‘Brauneberger Juffer’ 1993 German Auslese
Austrian Rieslings, like those produced by Fink Winery, tend to be drier than those of Germany, showing herbal, peppery and mineral aromas. Fink Winery is located about 1 hour west of Vienna near the Danube River. A family run winery now in their third generation, they produce high quality Austrian Rieslings at very affordable prices. Their combination of minerality and tropical fruit, like papaya, melon and passionfruit, is perfectly balanced by a racy backbone of juicy acidity.
The Riesling grape is hearty, late budding and has a thick stalk, allowing it to be grown throughout the world, in various climatic regions. Excellent vineyard sites can be found in the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia, the Finger Lakes of NY, northern Italy, Austria, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Hungary, or even right here in the Czech Republic.
Now, how do you sort through the sweet vs. the dry Rieslings? An excellent frame of reference is alcohol content, or the alcohol percentage, easily found on any wine label.
A general rule is that Rieslings containing an alcohol content below 11% will be on the sweeter side. This is due to the fact that the winemaker may have halted fermentation, allowing for a slightly higher residual sugar in the wine. Rieslings that have a 12% or higher alcohol content will generally be on the drier side, as the fermentation process was completely finished, leaving little to no residual sugar.
Riesling can easily be paired with pork dishes, creamy noodle dishes and schnitzel, yet can offer a lovely dessert pairing to a lemon custard tart.
Reisten Winery“Maidenburg” Pálava Výběr z hroznů (Selection of Grapes) | 2017 VOC Mikulov, Czech Republic
From my very first sip of Pálava in July 2018, I knew that I had stumbled upon something unique : A juicy, textured, aromatic wine that was enhanced by slightly sweet notes of lychee and tangerine. All of my previous tasting experience led me to believe it was a Gewürztraminer, yet there was a restrained floral aromatic component which had me questioning my instinct. I have since written about Pálava as I am constantly intrigued by its varying Moravian expressions.
Pálava is a grape varietal indigenous to the Czech Republic. It was originally produced in a laboratory in 1953 by the famed wine-grower and breeder, Dr. Josef Veverka. Pálava is a crossing of Muller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer, and is named after the limestone outcropping where it is presently cultivated. Designed as a frost resistant grape, it can grow more readily in the challenging Moravian climate. Thanks to receiving an official recognition in 1977, the plantings of Pálava have steadily increased and it has found its home nestled on the sunny, south facing hills and limestone rich soils.
Founded after the end of communism in 1999, the Reisten Winery started their business by selling their grapes to local winemakers. Yet after a few years of selling off their fruit, they decided to venture into the wine production business. In 2001, the winery planted their own vines, and since 2005, Reisten has consistently been a top Moravian producer. Presently a member of the VOC Mikulov, they focus mainly on cultivating white grape varietals, including Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pálava and Sauvignon Blanc. Their wines are clean, balanced and showcase the unique Mikulov microclimate.
Immediately after sampling Reisten Winery’s “Maidenburg” Pálava, I knew I had to use it for my wine class. The floral and fruity bouquet of their Palava is pronounced and fragrant, without being overpowering. The silky texture of the wine and small amount of residual sugar make the palate juicy and plump. Taking a sip of Reisten’s “Maidenburg” Pálava reminds me of biting into the first ripe peach of the North Carolina growing season, as the juiciness is easily balanced by racy acidity.
A quick tip when buying Pálava in the Czech Republic, always make sure that the wine is sold in the bottle, as opposed to a wine tap. Unfortunately, the lack of regulation allows for kegs of wines to be mislabeled as Pálava when sold to the vinotéka or wine shop purveyor. These kegs typically turn out to be a blend or cuvée of multiple varietals, blended in the Pálava region. If you’re looking to try a true Pálava, stick with one in the bottle. You won’t regret it.
Grimaldi Winery Dolcetto d’Alba 2016 | Alba, Piedmont, Italy
I am here to dispel the myth that red wine can only be enjoyed during winter. Certainly, to find the right red wine to drink during the heat of summer, there are some things to look out for : lower alcohol content, higher acidity, softer tannins and coincidentally, lower price tags. Wines such as Gamay, Dolcetto, Saint Laurent and Mencía offer the consumer a lighter red that is both refreshing and affordable, yet reflect a nuanced flavor and textural complexity.
Dolcetto is the perfect ‘chillable’ red because it is a light and fresh wine that embodies both tannin and acid, helping it pair with a variety of foods. By slightly chilling the bottle, the astringency diminishes and the wine is transformed into something soft, subtle and delicate.
Dolcetto, meaning ‘little sweet one,’ hails from Italy, where it grows primarily in the Piedmont region in the north. Most consumers recognize Piedmont for their epic Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas, and rightfully so, as they are world class wines. Unfortunately, Dolcetto does not command the same sort of notoriety.
In fact, Dolcetto is often used to keep the wineries afloat financially, as the Dolcetto grape can be picked early, matured quickly in stainless steel or concrete, bottled and quickly sold to the consumer. The Dolcetto sales generate income for the winery amid the graceful maturation of their heartier Nebbiolos and Barberas.
The Grimaldi Winery has been growing Dolcetto for decades. As the winery approaches its fifth generation, their total production reaches just 25,000 cases a year, while their yearly Dolcetto production is just over 1,100 cases. The winery emphasizes their sustainability, utilizing manual harvesting, natural pesticides and cover crops in their vineyards. Their goal is to showcase the quality of their fruit, ultimately reflecting the nuances of their terroir.
A perfect pairing for Dolcetto: Beef Carpaccio and wild mushrooms
Their Dolcetto is lovely, with a fragrant bouquet of blackberry, black cherry and kirsch, balanced with bright acidity and ripe tannins. Dolcetto can be a delightful pairing to beef carpaccio and mushrooms, yet can easily stand up to a pizza or tomato based pasta dish.
If you are unable to find a Dolcetto, try a Barbera from the Piedmont region or a dry Dornfelder from Moravia. Both will offer the same black cherry fruit aromas, yet can easily be chilled and served with your favorite pizza.
Saint Laurent (Svatovavřinecké)
Mikrosvín Mikulov Flowers Line Svatovavřinecké (Saint Laurent) 2016 | VOC Mikulov, Czech Republic
Every bottle of wine from Mikrosvín Flowers Line that I have tried thus far in Brno has been outstanding. This historic, Mikulov based winery produces stunning, high quality wines that are affordable and well balanced. Their motto, ‘Wine starts in the vineyard’ could not be more true, as each bottle showcases the respective qualities of the specific grape and the vineyard plot. Without being overshadowed by oak, residual sugar or chemical manipulation, the winemaker’s passion is shown in each and every bottle.
Their production facility lies in the center of the vineyards, in Dolní Dunajovice, facilitating the transport of grapes from harvest to press. Having made wine for centuries, they ensure small yields and meticulous attention to detail.
Saint Laurent takes its name from St. Lawrence Day on August 10, when the grapes begin to change color in the vineyard. The grape is rather sensitive during flowering and can be susceptible to late frost, thus requiring a talented and patient winemaker to ensure excellent fruit.
The varietal is indigenous to Austria, and unfortunately due to smaller production numbers, little is exported to the United States. The ones that we do have in the market are quite expensive, and were oftentimes relinquished to my ‘special occasion shelf.’
Over the years, I was in a desperate search for affordable Saint Laurent, as I found the wine’s velvety texture, blackberry fruit and earthy undertones intriguing and irresistible. You can imagine my surprise that here in south Moravia, it is available almost everywhere and at every price point. Also known as Svatovavřinecké, Saint Laurent is grown readily in Moravia, as the climate and soil types are quite similar to that of Austria.
Mikrosvín’s Flowers Line Saint Laurent over delivers for the price. The wine has a powerful bouquet of blackberry, plums, raspberries and black cherry, with additional hints of sweet tobacco and earth.
The body is velvety and soft, light and fruity, with integrated tannins that delicately creep forward. Just make sure that your wine is chilled for at least 1 hour before drinking, as it will integrate all the components, enhancing the wine’s texture and finish. Pair it with a simple olive, meat and cheese plate for a light supper.
If you are unable to find Saint Laurent, I would recommend either a Gamay based Cru Beaujolais, such as Chénas, or a Mencía based wine from Bierzo. Both varietals offer complex black fruit and spiced aromatics, with slightly elevated textures and richer tannins.
No matter what you drink this summer, remember to try something new. It is always fun to explore the unknown wine world and I’m happy to take you along with me!