Summer Sips

Sippin' Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot by the grill

The summer wine samples have arrived and with them a growing pile of tasting notes and press releases proffering tips on how and when to enjoy those wines. What these wineries or their press agents have in mind is that I, a busy wine journalist who’d rather be at the beach than tapping away at a keyboard in a stuffy office, will be happy to pass these themes on to readers.

But there’s a way to say it all with better economy of words: pair these wines with summer.

Charles Krug 2016 St. Helena Sauvignon Blanc ($18) The top wine of several Sauvignon Blancs and other whites tasted on a recent, unseasonably warm late spring evening, the Krug has a fine, light aroma like the powdery crumbs left in an emptied tin of lemon pastilles. Showing just a dusting of oak, this is no “fumé blanc” style, yet it only becomes grassy on the crisp, not too bitter finish. The buoyant palate suggests flavors of wheatgrass, lemon and underripe tropical fruit, defying easy Sauv Blanc categorization (i.e., “New Zealand style, etc).

The press agents who send out wine for Krug are pushing a “grilling surf and turf” theme, complete with a recipe “from the grill” of winery co-proprietor Peter Mondavi Jr.—which I have no reason to doubt, as Mondavi hosted a cookout for a few of us media types last spring, and he’s just the kind of knowledgeable but laid-back guy you’d want at the grill—for steak and cedar plank salmon. The Charles Krug 2013 Napa Valley Merlot ($25) is billed as pairing with either, but I actually preferred the Sauv Blanc with steak over the Merlot after trying Mondavi’s suggestion of an olive oil finish and coarsely ground sea salt. Already smoky with toasted oak, the otherwise full-flavored, chunky-tannic Merlot wasn’t much fun to sip at the grill and meets the meat on a bitter note, while the Blanc brightens up a bite, especially with a dab of pesto.

Try Rodney Strong’s 2016 Charlotte’s Home Northern Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc ($17) for a more herbal, lemon verbena-tinged take on the varietal. They’d have done well to have sent out a recipe, too, as I don’t find the marked astringency of the wine particularly refreshing, but it’s got the bones for some kind of cuisine.

Davis Bynum 2015 Jane’s Vineyard, Virginia’s Block Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25) Here’s a mouthful of a product title, but it’s pretty easy on the palate—juicy flavors of melon, lime, green apple and green grass, and a tangy finish with no bitters would have earned this cooler climate Sauvignon Blanc the top spot, were it not such a stinker on the nose. Reductive aromas of days-old lawn clippings only began to dissipate after a day, uncorked, in the fridge. Curiously, the aroma was no issue grill side, so give this to the grill master to sip while tending the veggies, which would be a better pairing with this wine.

Toad Hollow 2015 Richard McDowell’s Selection Sonoma County Merlot ($15.99) This is the bright, ripe red raspberry and vanilla-flavored, medium-bodied, easy-pleasing Merlot that Merlot is all about. Just enough oak and fine tannins make themselves felt on the dry finish to set the wine apart from cheaper versions, but the price is good for a Sonoma County red wine. My only quibble is with the closure—a screw cap would make this a handier option for “spring and summer sporting events,” the theme that Toad Hollow’s press agent has chosen for this shipment, which also includes Toad Hollow 2015 Mendocino County Unoaked Chardonnay ($14.99) Wouldn’t it be great if we could have cool, crisp Chardonnay without all the oak and malolactic character? Another question one might ask: isn’t there Pinot Grigio for that? Actually, now that I’ve read the tasting notes after tasting this wine, I find it underwent 80 percent malolactic fermentation, yet it’s still fairly characterless—innocuous, slightly yellow apple fruited, but OK for downing well-chilled on a warm evening.

Cline 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris ($15) Speaking of Pinot Grigio, this Pinot Gris is made from the same variety, but often—not always—the convention in California is to make it in a softer, perhaps barrel-aged style when calling it by the French. This one doesn’t fit that storyline: zippy, sharp honeydew melon and kiwi flavors emerge from an initially sulfury, then oddly peanut-brittle aroma.