When springtime finally arrives, thoughts turn to fresh produce from market stalls, mild sunshine-filled days and a return to lighter, brighter flavors. The best wines for this time of year sidle up to spring dishes and preparation methods—think peas and artichokes, sauteing and searing—without clunky tannins, too much oak or high ABV.
“Spring flavors are generally less bold and require a wine that has subtlety, some acidity and complexity,” says Maeve Pesquera, national wine director for the 66 locations of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. “A lighter style with light or moderately intense flavors, tannins or oak, is best to make the freshness of produce shine.” Fleming’s restaurants offer 100 wines by the glass or bottle.
The chain’s Bloomsdale Salad ($11.50) with spinach, red onion, spiced bacon, sliced almonds and fresh blueberries, pairs nicely with the bright flavors and white pepper notes of the Loimer Lois grüner veltliner trocken ($12.75 a glass) from Kamptal, Austria.
A fruity red also works, such as the Ponzi La Tavola pinot noir ($16 a glass) from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “[It is] made to go with a variety of food, and has ample acidity and fresh cherry flavors,” Pesquera says. A little on the richer side is Rodney Strong pinot noir ($13 a glass) from California’s Russian River Valley.
No matter the season, most guests at Fleming’s want a nice juicy steak. So in the warmer months, Pesquera suggests a lighter red rather than a big cabernet.
“The Cesari Corvina Jema from Veneto in Italy ($90 a bottle) is a wonderful, complex wine with a velvety texture and pure, red fruit flavors that enhance a juicy tender filet beautifully,” she notes. New York Strip fans will meet their match in the easygoing Predator Old Vine zinfandel ($10 a glass) from California’s Lodi region.
Pairing of the Green
Fresh produce abounds right now, and understanding its textures and flavors and how it plays with wine is key, says Rob Warren, director of winemaking for Chicago-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. “A lot of fresh spring produce is green and has some bitter flavors,” he says.
“To reduce this bitterness, you should choose a wine with a little sweetness and moderate acidity, such as an off-dry riesling,” Warren says. Cooper’s Hawk, a modern-casual chain with 22 locations, carries 40 proprietary, customized wines under its own label sourced from all over the world. Its riesling is priced at $7.75 a glass and $26.99 a bottle.
Warren points out that spring greens may be dressed with balsamic vinegar, adding acidity to the mix. So slightly sweet, low acid wines will balance things out.
“As the weather starts to warm up, there is a feeling of renewal and freshness in the air,” notes Warren. “People have a tendency to move away from heavy red wines towards lighter, refreshing fruity wines.”
The new spring menu at Cooper’s highlights seasonal ingredients. As always, each dish has a recommended wine pairing; wines are listed on the menu by their bin numbers.
For instance, Ahi Tuna Tacos ($11.99), blackened and seared rare, served with citrus slaw, sriracha cream, pico de gallo, avocado, cilantro and wasabi cream are paired with crisp sauvignon blanc ($7.25 a glass, $27.99 a bottle). The wine acts as a palate scrubber for the fish’s rich texture and the spice.
Classic tomato bruschetta with burrata, basil, arugula and olive oil is a match with pinot gris ($7.50 a glass, $25.99 a bottle). “The sweetness of the tomato and the bitterness of the arugula balance each other and work together to accentuate the [wine’s] fruity and floral flavors,” Warren says.
Light and Lively
After all of those root vegetables, heavy sauces and roasting and braising for the past two seasons, the fresh spring menu ingredients and preparation can make chefs—and wine directors—absolutely giddy.
“[Spring] is a great time of year to dine in Charleston and to utilize our local farmers in providing the best available ingredients out there,” says Peter Pierce, general manager of the 100-seat SNOB (Slightly North of Broad). The eclectic, low country bistro in Charleston, SC, offers 24 wines by the glass and 75 by the bottle.
Pierce cites spring pairings such as Gazpacho ($8) with Dopff & Irion Vin d’Alsace pinot blanc ($9 a glass). The slightly sweet finish, great acidity and balance of the otherwise dry white wine matches the freshly chopped cold soup, he says.
BBQ Tuna ($30) is a winner next to the 2013 Thevenet “Bussieres les Clos” Burgundy ($12 a glass). “This is more of a medium-bodied style pinot noir that still maintains a nice masculine finish that would cut the acidity from the South Carolina-style barbeque sauce,” Pierce says.
SNOB’s specials change daily, depending on availability and the whim of the kitchen. Among Pierce’s go-to, never-fail wines for spring cuisine are the 2014 Montefresco pinot grigio ($7 a glass, $32 a bottle), which is crisp and fresh with exotic fruit and a touch of pear and tangerine.
He also likes the 2012 Orin Swift Locations grenache blend ($12 a glass, $55 a bottle) from France, an aromatic and luscious wine with flavors of dark fruit, fig, kirsch and blackberry.
Al fresco dining affects guests’ palates in the warmer months, too. “Spring encourages outside festivities that often last longer than a traditional meal,” explains Robert Rodriguez, general manager for the 142-seat Cured in San Antonio, TX, which has an emphasis on hand-crafted farmhouse fare and cured foods. So lower-alcohol, wallet-friendly wines are popular.
The challenge, he says, is “maintaining a selection of full-bodied, higher-priced wines while featuring menus items that are lighter and greener in flavor.” Versatile varietals include vinho verde from Portugal, albariño from Spain’s Rias Baixas region in Galicia, and sparkling wines. Cured has 40 to 50 wines by the bottle, and about half of that by the glass.