Welcome to summer!
The first official weekend of summer is here, and it’s time to get a little oriented when it comes to wine in warm weather. This year in particular, as we return cautiously to group gatherings in more social situations, “summertime wine drinking” is inflected with more (and hopefully happier) significance.
Here are four words that, for me, characterize summertime wine in 2021. Some of them relate to the experience of the wine itself, and others relate more to the experience of drinking wine with others. In both cases, this list is a fun jumping-off point for a wine-focused “refresh” as we head into warmer weather.
Summer 2021 Wine Word One: Salinity
Salinity, along with the associated term of minerality, raise the hackles of wine writers and enthusiasts who try to capture a quality that tends to surface in cool, refreshing white wines in particular. As casual consumers, it’s entertaining and informative to listen in on the debate, and maybe add your own opinions the next time your find yourself with a crisp albariño or vermentino in your hand.
Albariño is the iconic grape of Galicia, the coastal region of northwest Spain, and also northwest Portugal where it is also written as alvarinho or cainho branco. Vermentino, for its part, is associated most often with the Italian island of Sardinia. Those are not the only locations where albariño or vermentino grow, and those are not the only wines where “salinity” is used as a descriptor, but it’s an effective introduction to the concept since salinity, as you might expect, is linked to salt and the sea and a briny character evocative of sunny geographies and fish-focused meals at coastal cafés near the ocean.
Some debate arises among wine writers who point out that “minerality” can’t actually be tasted, and that its use in the lexicon of wine didn’t even exist until roughly the mid-1980s. “Imagine licking wet rocks” was the instruction I heard when I asked for clarification of what was meant by the use of minerality, and its partner term salinity, in tasting notes. Licking wet rocks is not terribly appetizing, I thought, and who would ever actually do that? But the terms minerality and salinity do achieve the association of something very elemental in the natural world.
Which brings us back to that fish-focused meal at the beach, and the sunny geography where wines with “elemental salinity” are so appropriate and appreciated. The best news, whether you’re actually able to experience such a meal this summer in a place like that, is how evocative wines in this category can be. In addition to albariño and vermentino, also keep an eye out for assyrtiko (a grape typically associated with Greece) and muscadet (typically associated with the Loire Valley of France). You’ll find domestically-produced bottles of wines made from these grapes as well.
Summer 2021 Wine Word Two: Flintiness
“Flintiness,” much like the imagine-licking-wet-rocks descriptor above regarding minerality, doesn’t sound immediately appetizing. As metaphors, however, they are useful bridges to the ultra elemental characteristics from the natural world that are so expressive in some wines.
Grüner veltliner, a flagship grape from Austria, is often described using the term “flintiness” or “flinty stone flavors.” Pair that with some of the other descriptors for grüner — like zesty, high acid, citrus and white pepper — and you’ve got a complex and lively addition to your summertime table.
Last week I was exposed to the range of grüner’s potential during a tasted offered by Domäne Wachau, one of Austria’s best-known family cooperatives of this cool-climate grape that, as a kind of complement to its high-latitude geography, produces a wine that cools our palates at sea level as well. Fresh and vibrant with just 12 percent alcohol, I was particularly drawn to the 2020 Federspiel Terrassen. It manages to express both flintiness (gneiss, pronounced “nice,” is an important feature of Austria’s grape growing geology) and salinity, while also serving as a friendly and light addition to the table.
Please click over to Part Two of this mini-series, for the remaining two best wine words for summertime drinking in 2021.