Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.
Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.
The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.
The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.
But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.
In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.
Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.
More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.
Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.
Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.
Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.
So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!