Beyond the Spritzer
Cooling off with summer wines
The 'At Home' Strategy
The Greeks described the dog days of summer as the time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies," (Brady's Clavis Calendarium, 1813).
Well, forget the sour wine part, but the rest seems to be true. This is when wine lovers are looking for something cold, crisp, and delicious. One of the best recent discoveries is Kirkland Ranch Estate Chardonnay ($9), made from Russian River fruit and with a touch more acidity than a normal California Chardonnay. There's one catch: You have to have a Costco card. It's their house brand. If you like your Chardonnay in the food-friendly French style, Louis Jadot's Mâcon Villages ($13) is a tasty alternative you can find all over town.
Washington state is currently the most exciting area in the United States for wine. The humbly named Magnificent Wine Company is the brainchild of crazy Charles Smith (see photo), who takes Washington Chardonnay, Riesling, and Muscat and blends them into an unctuous, dry wine with balanced fruit and acids. And, in a "why didn't I think of that?" moment, he named it House Wine ($10).
Farming brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt have been growing some of the best grapes in Washington for years, including the ones that go into Charles Smith's premium wine, K Syrah Milbrandt. Now the Milbrandt men are taking some of their prime grapes and making wine on their own. Their Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions Pinot Gris ($12) style is just about in the middle of the oily density of Alsace's Pinot Gris and the light refreshment of Italy's Pinot Grigio. It's a bargain.
Eroica ($25) is another Washington winner. It's a joint venture between German icon Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle, and it brings the best of both worlds. It has big aromas and just a touch of sweetness. It would make an ideal match with Vietnamese food.
Lake Sonoma Winery Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16) is an ideal picnic wine. It has enough acidity to match with a range of foods, or it makes a good aperitif. It's also a nice example of the Sauvignon Blanc grape's pineapple and grass aromas. Have it alongside a salad topped with grilled peppers and goat cheese and dressed with just olive oil and a light spritz from a fresh lemon.
Sparkling wine is a good idea in any weather. J Vineyards & Winery's J Cuvée 20 Brut NV ($25) is their lowest-priced wine, but you'd never know it: It's clean and refreshing, with lemon and toast aromas. It goes with any food, or it's fun just to drink. Ditto for Schramsberg's Brut Rosé ($35). It's also toasty, but the extra Pinot Noir adds strawberry and cranberry aromas. Both wines would taste great with grilled fish.
For those who still want red wine, two of the best I've come across lately are big, intense bruisers from California. Cline Cellars' Ancient Vines Mourvèdre ($15) is as good a version of the grape as I've had from California. And for those who fell under the sway of 2004 sleeper Sideways and have forsworn Merlot, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards' Rosso di Sette Fratelli ($20, and yes, that's the same Jacuzzi that's in a lot of people's tubs) is dynamite stuff that will turn your head around. It's available only at the Austin Wine Merchant.
The 'Road Trip' Strategy
Austin is surrounded by wineries. Every one of them has at least one good wine, and many of them have stacks of it. Find a designated driver (each person on the trip has to give them a bottle of wine) and within two hours, you can be at the tasting room of one of more than 30 wineries.
For a nice day trip, start early and head out Highway 71 West, toward Spicewood. Just past the little town of Spicewood, on the left, is a turnoff for Spicewood Vineyards. There's a tree-shaded porch, a pretty vineyard, and a history of making great Sauvignon Blanc. This place is under new ownership, but they are committed to taking the past glories of the winery and making them even better. Try the Spicewood Vineyards Semillon Reserve ($20), an elegant, rich wine that would be wonderful with a cold roast chicken.
From there, head to Johnson City (go west on Highway 71 and then south on Highway 281). Once in town, look for FM 2766, the road to Pedernales Falls State Park. Less than a mile on the right will be Texas Hills Vineyards, a place committed to earth-friendly, sustainable practices. They also make some great wine, and the choice here for a refreshing, cold bottle is Due Bianco ($10), a blend of Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay that smells a bit like a honeydew melon.
From there, head to Stonewall (take Highway 290 West) for a stop at perennial crowd-pleaser Becker Vineyards. They make more than 20 wines, but for summer refreshment, pick their Viognier ($15), a wine that will remind you of peaches and paperwhites. Becker is the winery that started the Texas Viognier gold rush. Now there are probably 30 wineries making Viognier, and it has become Texas' signature grape.
Head back to Austin via Driftwood (take Highway 290 East, then RR 12 South). Driftwood Vineyards sits on the left, about halfway between Dripping Springs and Wimberley. The view outside the tasting room is from a hilltop across Gary Elliott's meticulously gardened vineyard. When Elliott was just farming, he provided a good percentage of Becker's original Viognier grapes. After seeing their success, he decided to open his own winery. So the best thing to do is get a bottle of his Viognier ($12), and compare the two.
From there, food beckons, and both the Salt Lick (where you can take your own wine) and Damian Mandola's Trattoria Lisina are nearby. Trattoria Lisina, besides having spectacular food, sits above Mandola's vineyards. Mandola Estate Winery specializes in food-friendly wines with a considerable amount of palate-refreshing acidity. The end of a nice day, and Austin is just an hour away.
Hill Country Wineries
Spicewood Vineyards 830/693-5328
Texas Hills Vineyard 830/868-2321
Becker Vineyards 830/644-2681
Driftwood Vineyards 512/692-6229