Last of the summer wines

Summerwine

What should be on your wine list as the summer heat hits its stride? Ben Canaider reports.

Freshness. Simplicity. Purity. Screw caps. And low alcohol.

If any advice is sought for wine list composition this summer in Australia, those opening seven words cover it all. Heat and humidity are the great enemies of wine, so the wines you spruik this February need to be pert and pure enough to handle the high ambient temperatures.

The thing is, every winemaking artifact or distortion in wine is exaggerated in hot weather—oak, alcohol, residual sugar. So if you keep the wines simple, your customers will be refreshed and uplifted, rather than bogged down in a wine-geek quagmire. Drinking posh, complex wines when it’s 42 degrees or 99% humidity is about as much fun as wearing a three-piece suit in similar conditions.

Obviously enough, there are wines no sensible person would drink at this time of year. Aged reds of the cabernet variety ought to be left for the next winter. Heavier-bodied whites like viognier or pinot gris should also be given a few months off. And bold, brassy, big South Australian shiraz styles—no matter how young or old—don’t suit the season.

So, rule number one: despite everything just mentioned, be sure to list one or two aged cabernets, a viognier, a pinot gris, and at least three bold, big and brassy shiraz wines from South Australia. Customers like this stuff, and customers are always right. Once you’ve satisfied this demand on your wine list, you can do a few other things that help to evolve the Australian wine-drinking palate.

Now that we’ve satisfied the customers, let’s get back to freshness, simplicity, purity, screw caps, and low alcohol volume.

Freshness

Current vintage wines are a must. Particularly when it comes to aromatic whites, rosé, and some of the new-style varietal red wines starting to trend—or vogue—as the French have it. More customers are picking up on the often confused notions of ‘current vintage’ and ‘recent vintage’—AKA old white wine.

Parallel distribution and wholesaling of wine has led to a lot of the more popular white varieties (such as sauvignon blanc) selling into the market from left-over vintage stock (AKA old white wine). This might seem like an LUC bargain, but you run the risk of insulting your customers if you sell them old wine of a variety or style that is supposed to be drunk fresh.

Simplicity

The simple (and often very affordable) wine styles are the ones that suit this time of year. Wines that have not seen any oak, bottle-aging or any other winemaking tricks are inherently more drinkable than those that have. A clean, simple 2015 sauvignon blanc from the Adelaide Hills, for instance, is going to complement your Asia-Pacific-rim-fusion-mod-Oz cuisine better than any poncy chardonnay or semillon/sauvignon blanc blend might do.

Similarly, some of the more aromatic and bright pinot noirs doing the rounds (Yarra Valley in particular) are brilliant red wines for hot and humid conditions. They have red berry flavours and gentle ripe tannins to make you think you are drinking red wine, but they don’t have that overt oak and gruff dryness which turns so many summer dishes into ashes in your customers’ mouths.

Purity

When it comes to wine that is so unalloyed and so pure of heart, Australia is lucky enough to have two examples that are not only easily stocked, but also stocked at very reasonable LUC prices: semillon and riesling.

Yes, yes—I know the time-honoured, well-worn rant against stocking these wonderful white wine styles: “Everyone says they love them, but no one buys them!” Times, however, are changing.

Gen Y or Gen Z—or possibly even Gen AA—are free-thinking internationals who brook no traditions. Indeed, anything their mum or her de facto didn’t like, they do (look at all the linoleum on trendy restaurant floors nowadays!).

So, stock Hunter Valley semillon and Eden or Clare Valley riesling—alongside a German one too—and market them on the menu with your freshest, lightest and best summer dishes.

“High and obvious alcohol levels in wine are not just an issue from a taste point of view, but now from
a health point of view too.”

Screw caps

Everyone now knows why screw caps exist and why corks increasingly don’t, and why screw caps help reduce restaurant overheads. What’s more, a ‘corked’ wine is always seen as the restaurateur’s fault.

Screw caps not only serve to eliminate cork-taint, they are also quicker to open and serve. In the heat of service, that’s not to be overlooked. Screw caps also suit a couple of the more lively and fresh styles of red wine to have recently undergone a stylistic overhaul.

Much like Australian chardonnay has gone from being a woody version of pineapple juice and turned into something more akin to Chablis, so
too have Australian grenache and shiraz become more true to grape type.

Increasingly, these red varietals are offering more savoury fruit, less oak, softer (but resolute)tannins, and clear, refreshing acidity. The latter is a result of earlier grape-harvesting regimens, whereby the acid is not cooked out of the fruit on the vine. Grenache (look to McLaren Vale), in particular, could well be the unthinking man’s pinot noir.

Low alcohol

This really is the health and wellbeing elephant in the dining room. High and obvious alcohol levels in wine are not just an issue from a taste point of view, but now from a health point of view too.

In terms of taste, high alcohol in wine is a cheat. It cheats flavour.

Alcohol’s burn makes you think you are getting a drink, but it masks the fact there was not much fruit purity or freshness, in the original grapes themselves.

High alcohol also puts a growing number of customers off. Sure, they want a drink, but they want a drink that doesn’t hammer them after one glass.

The good news is that many of the wines mentioned above—Australian semillon, riesling, the new style of chardonnay and some rosé wines—are more likely to be around 12.5% ABV than 15%, which is what a good fino sherry weighs in at.

Speaking of which, fino sherry and hot, humid weather seem to make perfect sense to me—and a plate of unpretentiously cooked shellfish. Sold
by the 60ml copita glass, it will instantly turn your venue into a tapas bar.

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