Viognier - a grape as tricky to grow as pinot noir - has that taste-of-summer character, crisp with a hint of apricot. Like chardonnay, it can have that golden color and creamy mouth feel. The best viogniers are rich, intense, slightly fragrant - a graceful companion to spicy dishes, stir-fry and even curry. One of my favorite wine country evenings was dinner with an array of viogniers at the then-new Girl and the Fig. Phelps makes an awfully nice, though pricey, version of this Rhone varietal. Midrange, Calera is intriguing. And at an everyday price point, Concannon acquits itself nicely.
Though of Alsatian ancestry, pinot blanc can sometimes taste like a chardonnay cousin. But the more rewarding styles are less malo, less wood, with an accent on its crisp apple/pear character that pairs so well with summer's lighter fare. Chalone pioneered California pinot blancs, and its somewhat toasty style is still a favorite. Robert Sinskey makes a very clean, hands-off version. And Arrowood's rich, intense style (14.9 percent alcohol) makes a wonderful ABC aperitif.
Then there's Grüner Veltliner, pronounced groo-ner velt-lee-ner or referred to, in hippy-dippy fashion, as Groo Vee. The best of these complex, spicy, peppery pours are Austrian. A couple oddities with this full-bodied dry wine: It will actually age gracefully. And it is quite versatile and forgiving on the dinner table, even with those perennial difficulties, artichoke and asparagus.
For more casual occasions a cold hard cider hits the spot, especially after a hot afternoon tasting in the wine country. Magners, with only 4.5 percent alcohol, is lightly carbonated, sweet and tart. This Irish cider has none of that metallic finish prevalent in many American efforts. And while it does come in pint bottles, looking quite wine-like, if you're heading to some friends for dinnertime grilling, you can present your host with a manly six-pack.
New and recommended:
- Pali Bluffs Pinot Noir, 2007 ($40): Where to begin? Pali's deep lineup of impressive pinots is stunning by any stretch. This Russian River blend has that earthy, dark cherry thing going on, but with balance and restraint. Grade: B+
- Huge Bear Sonoma County Chardonnay, 2007 ($40): A rich, creamy chard seemingly destined to accompany your next grilled salmon. Grade: B+
- Clos la Chance Estate Grenache, 2006 ($30): A dark, plumy convincer. I'm thinking thick Iowa chops, marinated in Mojo Criollo and grilled over apple wood. Grade: B+