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White lightning

Crackling wines for summer doldrums


Most people use the word "breathtaking" to mean something exciting and spectacular. But step out of your back door and I'll show you what breathtaking means in the summery South--such oppressive heat and humidity that you can hardly inhale. To counter the effects of such weather, I offer white wines that restore breath and vigor to weather-beaten frames.

Societal Gatorade is the vinous reality of sauvignon blanc. This grape, in the past often maligned for its austere vegetal character, is experiencing a resurgence as wine lovers revel in its slim, brisk, thirst-quenching freshness and the "jumpy" lilting flavors that accompany the ever improving available examples. There's something spring-like about this grape--it has a "green" quality of newly opened shoots and buds. Never ponderous or mouth filling, sauvignon blanc invigorates the imbiber and is a joy to look forward to at the end of a frying day.

The wines differ stylistically from region to region, nation to nation. I can't imagine a larger contrast than Quivira's icy, direct tang compared to Sauvignon Republic's tropical, barrel of fruit styling. Yet, at its core, the grape's ultimate character remains true and recognizable within varying styles.

I'm pleased to note winemakers' lessening of oak influence over this grape, whose overt energy can be seriously compromised with an oaken overdose. Chateau St. Jean's glorious fruit in its La Petite Etoile bottling is stymied and smoothed to a dull glow by this love affair with oak. I can only imagine what it would be like with a more judicious treatment. In contrast, St. Jean's regular bottling gives far greater pleasure because it retains the boisterousness of its main ingredient.

Many top sauvignons have what are referred to as minerally elements. It might seem strange that a wine might taste like quartz or feldspar, but it is a fact that the minerals in the soil somehow express themselves especially keenly in this varietal. Thus words like "steely" and "flinty" often come up. I think it's mostly the edginess and "cut" that sauvignon lays on your palate. Other grapes such as albarino, gavi and riesling do it too, but perhaps not with the ferocity of sauvignon blanc. To me it's a great virtue.

Always a heavenly match for broiled fish and seafood, sauvignon blanc is especially welcome at this time of year for all manner of green and pasta salads. Try balsamic vinegar or lemon over your salads instead of sharp vinegars or creamy dressings. You'll find the total picture to be one of airiness and light. A good crusty bread by your side should round things out nicely.

Here are the best examples from 31 wines tasted blindly. Please read the descriptions rather than just the numerical score to lead to a styling that fits your taste.

2004 Rancho Zabaco, Dancing Bull, California $10
Straw, chalk and grapefruit with subtle tropical notes. Lemon-lime flavors with a tart finish. Needs food. 84

2004 Guenoc, Lake County $13
Alive with peach and citrus scents. Elegant and inviting. Simple brisk flavor leaning toward high acid and a slightly bitter finish. 84+

2004 Beringer, Napa Valley $12
Lemon grass and a lilting, lightly spiced bouquet. Good bite and "cut" on the finish. A smooth, slightly mouth-cloying texture. Overall a nice effort. 85

2003 Sauvignon Republic Cellars, Russian River Valley $18
Low key lemon curd, grassy, green apple nose. Tart and fresh yet with a slightly sweet flavor and severe finish. Well made but a bit flat overall. 85+

2003 Chateau Potelle, Mendocino $15
Abundantly fragrant--lean, herbal lemon zest and pear. Boisterous but not over the top. Brisk yet substantial mouth texture. Somewhat disjointed. Always a good bet but this is not my favorite year. 86+

2004 Lockwood Vineyard, Monterey $10
Friendly, springtime melony scents; brilliant kiwi and outgoing pear nose. Good flavor profile is most enjoyable. A slight cardboard quality on the finish lowers the score. 86+ NICE BUY

2004 Pepi, California $9
Grayish tinge. Grassy, field of greens and fresh squeezed citrus nose. Simple, bright yet soft flavors. Admirable, balanced sipper. 87 FINE VALUE

2003 Chateau St. Michelle, Columbia Valley $10
Icy, grassy, green pea and very floral melon mix. Grasping flavors, flinty and crisp. A thirst buster. 87 EXCELLENT VALUE

2003 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $13
Vibrant citrus fruit with a light oaken fingerprint throughout. Mouth-awakening acids and delicious brisk flavors ending on a tasty smooth note. 89 TERRIFIC BUY

2003 Quivira, Fig Tree Vineyard $16
From Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, clean and expansive, polished and inviting with grassy and slate/mineral elements. Tangy, prickly fruit that dances on the palate. Smooth but lively acids and finish. Top class. 90

2004 Sauvignon Republic Cellars, Marlborough $18
Wild tropical aromas--like a luau in your living room! Pineapple, mango and spicy highlights. Smily, sunny fruit flavors. Beautifully balanced and typical of New Zealand Sauvignon at its best. 91

2004 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley $14
Beautifully integrated fruit; a broad canvas of gentle spice, mellow melony fruit on a citric canopy of essences. Goes on and on. Flavors are gently smooth but packed with an intriguing swatch of energy. Alone or with poached salmon, a superb wine. 92 BEST BUY and BEST WINE OF TASTING

Call it rosé, rosato, Sofia or Isa--there are numerous names and grape varieties involved with pink-colored wine. Yet they all have the same destination--refreshment. From the lightest colored eye of partridge through salmon to shocking pink, these wines show marked differences in their makeup. Grapes such as pinot noir, syrah, grenache and merlot vie for your favor in the ever growing rosé category.

Here is a wine that has shed its questionable image created by the likes of many a "white" zinfandel, Mateus and Lancer's. Rosés now come in dry styling, and the value of a complex, substantial red grape being used to create a lighter version of its fulsome self makes for rosés that please all levels of consumer sophistication. There's no fun in drinking a warm, plodding, "room temperature" red when the thermometer is cracking its seams. Good rosés have long been appreciated at the summer homes and beach sites of many European nations. Now our turn is here in full force, and the following are some exciting reasons to join the pink revolution. With 26 wines tasted blindly, here are the very best:

2003 Routas, Rouviere $9
From Provence, extremely light in color and aroma. All freshness without much identity. Lilting fleeting flavors; goes down easily with a slight metallic touch on the finish. 85+

2004 Isolda, Bodegas San Martin $8
From Navarra, an extroverted, nicely blended bouquet of cherry jam with watermelon overtones. Open, picnic-styled drink. Bright, sassy with rather raspy flavors on the finish. 86+ GOOD BUY--but where's Tristan?

2003 Pansy, Kim Crawford $18
Merlot based and, I'm informed, made for a gay pride event. Honest! A red wine color with generous fresh fruit impressions. Deep berry, plum and silvery edged nose. Bright citric mouth feel with a short, tight finish. Fun and flavorful. 87

2004 Leverano, Cantina Sociale Cooperativa $8
Dark berry, anise, almond and spice on a dry nose. Bracing, clean flavors that come up a bit blunt. Lots of character and a very dry finish. 87 FINE VALUE

2003 Saintsbury, Carneros $11
Euphemistically named "Vincent Vin Gris"! Fresh exotic bouquet of unmistakable pinot noir. Clove, roses and spiciness on the fragrant nose. Tangy, tingling yet substantial flavors. A real success for real wine lovers. 88 EXCELLENT BUY

2004 Sofia, Niebaum-Coppola $16
A Carneros pinot noir bottling that's as dark as many "regular" pinots! A fresh gallop through strawberry fields. Bracingly alive. An energetic gulp of serious fruit. Solid flavors with a touch of end bitterness. A dynamic debut. 88

2004 Parallele 45, Cotes du Rhone $10
Unfruity deep grape elements that form a layer of varied, interesting aromatics. Slight earthiness does not impinge on its freshness. Generous flavors like a red, but marked by lively acids and lift. A red wine drinker's rosé. 88 GREAT BUY

2004 El Coto Rioja $10
Beautiful harmonious fruit, cherry blessed and really inviting. Extremely pure and pleasing. Lingering fruit flavors on a rather dry finish. A blend of grenache and tempranillo. (Just reordered by the local distributor.) 88 SUPER BUY

2004 Isa, Cotes de Thongue $10
Light aromatics with hints of berries and cream. Pretty and effortless. Bright, brilliant fruit flavors that please and last. A delicious fruit basket on the palate without any dulling sweetness. Long, long finish. 89 BEST BUY

2004 Castello Di Ama, Toscana $17
Understated, lithe fruit. Roses, flowery, fresh with perfect ripeness. Caresses rather than slaps. Smooth as silk while subtle fruit emerges and massages the palate. Very sexy and delicious. 90 BEST OF TASTING

I recently attended an Italian wine tasting. There's one every month at Il Palio Ristorante in Chapel Hill, led by sommelier Damon Haynes. To say that Damon has the most intricate, interesting and dedicatedly chosen Italian wine list is to demean him. Damon's imagination, and his willingness to bring in the highest quality, small production gems--wines that must be "introduced" to his clients, make him the sommelier's sommelier. He's a gifted, energetic wine lover whose choices are both daring and delicious. One red I recently tasted there is the perfect summer sipper--an extraordinary wine and value:

2004 Schiava, Erste & Neue Kellerei $11
From Alto Adige (or Sud Tyrol if you're German speaking), this is a fabulous, lightly scented wine with amazing freshness that flies up and away between tickling your nose and palate. A splendid evanescent quality. It's so light and winsome, floating like a hummingbird. Chill. 89

P.S. I do drink red wine during summer's cruel days, but I chill them down in the refrigerator for one hour. This ensures initial invigoration, and, as it warms, the layered complexities emerge. Unless I'm well air-conditioned, I do not drink older, subtler reds in the summer.

A glass that breathes? According to the manufacturer, Eisch Glaskultur, these wine glasses "undergo an ... oxygenising treatment" which aerates the wine in a passionate, agitating manner. After two to four minutes, the wines taste as if they have been decanted one to two hours. Skeptical indeed I was, but the glasses deliver. White wines burst out with emphatic bouquets, and young reds open up precipitously to show their fruit essences and a softer palate feel.

I would not recommend these glasses for older wines that will be ready to consume upon uncorking. The breathable glass turns their delicate natures into old codgers before your very nose. For many wine consumers, however, these are a marvelous invention. I'm sold. Their cost is not cheap--about $30 the stem--but those of you so inclined will find these revolutionary and a lot of fun. Available from

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