Wine Lists

Summer Reds

By Campbell Mattinson

The red wine lover's guide to summer drinking

Just before Christmas last year, I got so fired up over the advice being given on my local radio station about how red wine should and shouldn’t be consumed over summer that I took the dramatic and unprecedented step of sending the station a text message.

What had me frothing was the advice that slipping a small cube of ice into a glass of red wine was a distinct and uncouth no-no. No one, they said, who really understands or appreciates red wine would ever do such a thing.

My text – playing to its audience – simply read, “Au contraire, Mr Wine Expert. Ice cubes are cool. Yours, Hot & Bothered.”  Yes, I was that upset. I take the wine advice I give and receive very seriously.

Placing a small ice cube in a glass of red wine is a practice worth avoiding, if you can, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The serving of red wine too warm or, as is so disgustingly common, too hot, is the far greater sin.

And this brings us to the point that all red wine lovers know deep down inside: in summer, we’re going to lap up many a beer, sparkling and white wine. But the time will always come when the frivolity wears thin and we need a deeper conversation – and a red.

During summer in Australia, this can be a problem. Of all the potential issues facing all wine served in Australia at this time, red wine served at an inappropriate temperature or in an inappropriate style is arguably the biggest.

The heart of the problem

As soon as a red wine, particularly a robust red, is served too warm, the alcohol gets its dancing pants on and rises up from it like a plume of pollution. Not only does this make it impossible to see the wine’s flavours properly, but its aromas become more fume than perfume. To put it bluntly, good red wine served too warm tastes gross.

So we need to do something. Change things up, as they say at conferences.

Not for naught then does Steve Webber of De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley immediately joke when asked for ways to solve this Summer Red Wine Crisis. “Turn the air conditioner on to 16 degrees, pop a jumper on, grab the 2013 Deborts Estate pinot straight from the cellar, pour into a goblet and enjoy,” he says.

That’s one way. But unless you’re on solar power, you might be filing for bankruptcy by March.

The solutions

A lighter style of red and a keen chilling regime – of the bottle and its liquid contents, not the drinker or the planet – is clearly in order. The problem is that the oak and tannin in reds usually tastes odd or hard or ugly if the wine is chilled too aggressively. All the things that make red wine taste bloody fantastic in the middle of winter can come back to bite us in summer.

And yet we must persist. Because we are red wine lovers. And we have a lot of family functions to get through.

“Wines with crunch seem to work for me,” De Bortoli’s Steve says. “But any obvious oak really does magnify in chilled red. Lightly oaked 'village style' pinot noir and gamay work pretty well. We were in Bassano [in northern Italy] a few years ago, drinking six-month-old Valpolicella chilled from carafes and that wasn't bad.” Steve believes younger red wines work better chilled than aged reds.

Fruitiness, fellow red drinkers, is our friend in summer, as is little or no oak, freshness, vibrance, youth and liveliness. We must embrace these characters. Demand them. Go to all sorts of scheming lengths to seek them out.  

Award-winning sommelier Thomas Hogan of Melbourne bar Harry & Frankie believes red wines should be served between 16 and 18 degrees, rather than chilled. “Nothing worse than warm red,” he says. “I'm always looking for fresh, crunchy, aromatic, lighter reds for summer drinking – wines that avoid obvious oak influence and heavy tannin structures. Grenache pretending to be Beaujolais and aromatic red blends pretending to be pinot noir tend to be in high rotation in the summer months if the situation demands red.” Thomas names Ochota Barrels The Green Room and the Simla Field Blend Red as two great examples.

So what styles should we seek out? Pinot noir, gamay, dolcetto, barbera, graciano and various warm-climate Spanish and Italian red varieties, along with rose, sparkling red, and lighter or fruitier examples of our beloved shiraz. Better still, because of lighter oak regimes, lower priced wines can often fit the bill best in summer.

And don’t be afraid of the ice cube. Or I’ll text you. Now there’s a threat.

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Rules of summer engagement

  • Look for lower-alcohol reds. If the alcohol reading starts with a 13 or even a 12, that’s a good start.
  • Don’t be afraid to chill a red. Don’t shut it down to full fridge temperature; knock its temperature down to the common definition of ‘room temperature’, or about 15 to 18 degrees, which is often very different to actual room temperature. Around 15 minutes in the fridge does a bottle of red wonders at the height of summer.
  • The price of summer-red freshness is vigilance. If the wine starts to warm as you drink it, simply put it back in the fridge for 10 minutes. But don’t make your red wine cold – that doesn’t taste good either. At least you know it will warm back up if you forget it’s in the fridge while in front of the cricket on TV.
  • There’s also talk of a rose revolution, but it’s more of a rose solution. Modern dry styles that are unoaked and pretty with fruit and spice are excellent summer options. And they’re at least reddish in colour.

Campbell’s summer red picks

La La Land Tempranillo 2013, $16

Soft, juicy, low in tannin and oak. Succulent red- and black-berried fruit makes this a perfect barbecue choice. Lightish, but there’s enough flavour here.

Paxton Graciano 2013, $30

A light chill will do this no harm at all. At 13% alc, it’s awash with berried flavour, made complex by notes of black tea and sweetened slightly by smoky sultana flavours. Beautiful summer drinking. Not heavy.

Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz 2012, $27

Sparkling red comes into its own in summer – you can definitely chill it – and while Seppelt Original is an old mainstay, it’s made fresher and fruitier now than ever. If you can find this at a good price, it’s worth a case-buy – half for this summer and half for later.

De Bortoli Estate Pinot Noir 2013, $30

Steve Webber is not wrong on this – it makes for great summer drinking. It’s firm and savoury, so you need to be careful when chilling it – keep it below 20 degrees, but not below 10 – but the amount of complex fruit-filled flavour here is excellent. This is all within a light-is-good context, of course.

Mandoleto Nero d’Avola 2013, $14

Complex, interesting, leathery, stuffed with curranty fruit, but not over the top. Grown in Italy. Low in oak and low-ish in alcohol. Treats gluggability very seriously. Worth tracking down, and stocking up on, for this summer.

Frederick Stevenson Dry Red 2014, $27

This is quickly becoming an underground favourite for its high drinkability. It’s 13% alcohol, made mostly with Barossa cinsault and shiraz grapes and loaded with juicy fruit flavour, but has enough complexity to keep you interested. It can definitely be served chilled.

Brash Higgins Nero d’Avola 2013, $42

A bit gutsier, a bit more expensive, as much a winter drink as a summer one, but its low oak regime and savoury, seedy, berried flavour make it a great choice for a ‘special’ summer night’s drinking.

St Hallett Gamekeeper’s Shiraz Grenache Touriga 2013, $14

Summer or not, it’s a steal. It’s only light- to medium-bodied, but its mix of raspberry and dried spice notes make it great for knocking back, either from a tumbler or more proper wine stemware.

St Hallett Black Clay Shiraz 2013, $15

Two wines in this list from the one producer? St Hallett is on fire with its reds at present. Just buy this if you see it. Don’t hesitate.

Chalmers Lambrusco 2013, $42

The price may make you baulk, but it’s an interesting insight into what Lambrusco can be. It’s not all super-sweet muck. Spritz/fizz, gamey notes, handfuls of currants, lots of life. Made with care and attention.

Willow Bridge Estate Dragonfly Shiraz 2013, $18

This label is charging out of the blocks at the moment. It’s worth getting on board. Plums, chocolate, spice, redcurrant; it’s all going on here. It’s only 13.1% alcohol and got so much charm.

Coriole Barbera 2013, $25

This tastes leathery and herbal in part, though as it breathes, it bursts with bright red cherry and raspberry flavour. It’s interesting. Different. And unusual. In a good, fruit-flowing-freely way.

Longhop Rose 2014, $18

Such an energetic wine. This gets the mix of savouriness and jubey/cranberried fruitiness right. It pours fleshy fruit flavour, but then finishes dry – almost earthen. Pale-coloured too, so it looks cool.

Ten Minutes by Tractor 10X Pinot Noir 2013, $32

Fast becoming one of the stars of Australian wine, let alone the Mornington Peninsula. This wine boasts an undergrowthy character, sweet-sour cherried flavours aplenty and an overhwleming sense of fruit purity.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2012, $18

Unusual choice for summer, maybe, but this is such a good version of this much-loved Aussie favourite. Pure blackcurrant and mint flavours, beautiful balance, 13.5% alcohol and simply great all-round value.

Brown Brothers Limited Release Tempranillo and Graciano 2012, $21

Fleshy, fruit-driven, uncomplicated but ever-so moreish. All the flavours feel buoyant, lively and eager-to-please. Summer drinking? Yes, I think so. Definitely.