Summer's lazy days are perfect for lighter, chilled wines. Just as January demands a bold Cabernet Sauvignon from France, June begs for an Italian Pinot Grigio.
Decades ago, connoisseurs agreed that all the really good wines came from France. Vintages from anywhere else (Portugal? California? Australia?) were considered plonk [see below].
The wines I recommend to accompany these recipes are anything but plonk. They reflect today's globalization of wine. Some of the most exciting new reds and whites come from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and Chile.
An old rule of thumb is that red wine should be served with red meat and white wine with fish and white meat. Generally that's a good idea, but there are always exceptions. For example, if a fish or poultry dish has a spicy sauce, you might also consider a lighter red, perhaps a Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais.
The chilliest mistake many people make is serving white wines too cold. Kitchen refrigerators are fine for storage, but not for serving. If you keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees, don't pull out a bottle and serve it immediately. The aroma and flavors will be lost if they're served cold instead of just chilled. White wine is best served at about 50 degrees, and Champagne should be a few degrees colder than that.
You have basically two choices for getting temperature right. Either put the white wine in a refrigerator and then take it out about 20 minutes before serving, or keep it at room temperature and then put it in an ice bucket for about the same amount of time.
Now on to my picks. By the way, all of these wines retail for less than $20, most for less than $15.
For Don and Lois' Crab Appetizer, I selected a 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay from Beringer ($14). This is a stand-up, but not overpowering, Chardonnay. It has a lovely nose, and you can enjoy the mixture of fruit flavors and mild oak. The wine also has a nice acidity that complements crab. Chardonnay is a favorite apéritif for many Americans, so you could serve this before dinner and with a first course.
For Paula's Easiest Salmon Ever, I chose a 2004 David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir ($19). Because salmon's a fairly strong fish, it can hold its own with a Pinot. This wine comes from one of the masters of California Pinot. The taste is fresh and fruity, with a nice acidity. You should chill this wine just a bit, but don't overdo it or you'll hide its complexity.
Curried Rice and Shrimp Salad is a natural for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Many people, myself included, believe that New Zealand is now producing the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world. They're fresh and fruity with citrus and grass flavors. I chose a 2003 from Allan Scott ($13). This wine comes in a screwtop bottle, but don't be turned off by that. Almost all New Zealand wines now come that way. ("Kiwi" winemakers are leading the drive to replace cork, especially in bottles of young white wine like this.)
Baked White Fish with Parmesan Crumbs is a perfect match for an Italian Pinot Grigio. I picked a 2004 Cavit ($9) to go with flounder. The citrus taste of the Pinot Grigio pairs well with fish.
Riesling is enjoying something of a comeback after years of being relegated to the dark recesses of many cellars. It's a little stronger than a Pinot Grigio but goes well with a stronger or spicier dish, like Shrimp Georgie Porgie. While Australia and New Zealand make good Rieslings, I decided to go back to the home of Rieslings―Western Europe. I actually tried two with this dish, a 2002 Pierre Sparr Reserve ($15) from Alsace in France, and a 2002 Graff Kabinett Piesporter Michelsberg ($10) from the Mosel region of Germany. I thought the Graff worked slightly better. It's very fruity and has a slight touch of sweetness that went well with the shrimp. But any German Riesling sweeter than a Kabinett, such as a Spätlese, would be too sweet.
My favorite of these recipes was the Nearly Shrimp Paisano, and my favorite wine was a 2002 Brampton Unoaked Chardonnay ($8). This is the second label for one of South Africa's most famous wineries, Rustenberg. Second labels often provide great value, and this is one's a winner. You may not have experienced unoaked Chardonnay because they're unheard of among California wines, which are sometimes so over-oaked that they have an almost woody taste. Brampton ferments its wine in stainless steel, which lets the natural fruit tastes show through. Those flavors are of pear, peach, and melon, rather than the citrus fruits of the other wines. Since this dish has a stronger sauce that included some lemon flavor, unoaked Chardonnay is a great complement.
George M. Taber is the author of Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine (Scribner, 2005). The book recounts the famous wine showdown in which wines from California beat the best France had to offer. He and his wife, Jean, live on Block Island, Rhode Island, where they enjoy plenty of fish dishes and white wines.
The word "plonk," which means any low-quality wine, was first coined by British troops during World War I. The soldiers in France liked going into cafés and ordering a glass of inexpensive white wine. But their pronunciation of vin blanc (white wine) sounded something like "plonk."