Man, I love it when the weather turns warmer, when spring takes hold. There are many reasons for this affection, of course, but one of my strongest reasons is gastronomic. For when the air is temperate, eating outside becomes possible. And eating outside…I swear I believe this!…makes food taste better. It just does. Scientifically, this has something to do with the air circulating through your retro-nasal passage, but don’t make me swear by it. I only swear that food tastes best at a picnic!
Since I’ve indulged heavily, for years, in le picnique on the grass, dining al fresco, I’ve also developed strong notions about what wines to drink when you’re outside.
Much depends on the specific food, of course. But picnic food is usually light—no one serves beef stew at a picnic—and, accordingly, calls for lightish wines.
One great category of picnic wine is light and fizzy stuff. I’m not necessarily touting Champagne as picnic wine: good Champagne is complex, and the mental concentration it takes to fully appreciate Champagne is out of keeping with the light-hearted nature of a picnic. However, when the fizz is in cava, spumante, and other of the world’s light-hearted sparklers—the tone is just right. One of my faves for picnics is the delicious NV Beghel Vino Bianco Frizzante, made by Ca’Berti, a Lambrusco producer in Emilia-Romagna. Beghel is a small river near the winery—and may Ca’Berti produce a river of this lovely, lively stuff! It is made from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Riesling—leading to a light, wispy, graceful glass of delicate bubbles, with Riesling aromas, a bracing dose of acid on the palate, harmonized by the lightest touch of sweetness.
Speaking of off-dryness in wine…it’s not a bad way to go, at picnic time…particularly if you’ve included some lightly sweet elements in the food. For example, let’s say you’ve made a chicken salad for the picnic; including sliced grapes, or diced apples, will improve the match with off-dry wines. One of my favorites this year is the 2014 Cave de Ribeauvillé Gewurztraminer Collection, from my favorite co-op in Alsace. Very subtle Gewurz nose…a little on the rosewater side, plus some citrus. Definitely off-dry, and less bitter than typical Gewurz. Great with a fruity chicken salad, but this is the rare Gewurz that can perform with aplomb next to spicy Asian food as well (I’m voting for a spicy Thai green papaya salad at your picnic!).
So, obviously, when it comes to picnic time, I like white! However, reds can work too, as long as you keep them light. Modestly chilled Beaujolais is a great picnic wine, as is chilled Pinot Noir (but don’t choose a Grand Cru Burgundy!). Youth, with its attendant red-fruit fruitiness, helps a lot. Tannin and structure are not your picnic friends. And if you’re planning to go Italianate in your menu—like a grand platter of salumi, accompanied by chunks of provolone, or Parmigiano-Reggiano—think young, soft, Italian red. Valpolicella, Bardolino, old-style Chianti, lightly chilled, put you on any imagined Italian hillside. Try the 2010 Montecucco Sangiovese Cartacanta DOC from Basile, in Tuscany, made with 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot. Light in color, medium red fruit on nose, mostly plums and cherries, with a little bit of Christmas spice. Fairly sweet entry (once again, great for picnics), morphing into a dry middle palate and finish. Elegant with no scratchiness; it’s about fruit, not structure.
No need to let these wines breathe…they will anyway, along with you on your picnic blanket!
header image: Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.