It seems only natural to go All American for our Fourth of July recommendations. After all, wine -- and our nation's bizarre relationship with alcohol -- have been part of our history since the time of the Founding Fathers.
"In nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines," said Thomas Jefferson famously (and presciently). Not only was Jefferson a grape grower and winemaker, he also had a vision that the newly founded United States of America could become a wine powerhouse (he was right).
When it comes to pairing with July Fourth, balanced alcohol is foremost in my mind: On a day when we're spending time outdoors in the heat, I want to make sure that I serve my guests delicious wines that they can enjoy heartily without being weighed down by the alcohol content. And as you'll see below, Pinot Noir is the grape that I keep coming back to: When well balanced, it has that ineffable counterpoint of power and finesse that I look for in great red wines.
5. Llano Estacado Tempranillo: If I were pressed to reveal what I believe to be "the best wine in Texas" right now, I'd have to say the Llano Estacado Tempranillo, made from grapes cultivated in the High Plains of Texas by top grower Neal Newsom. When my colleague Katharine Shilcutt and I tasted the wine together recently, I was thoroughly impressed by its freshness, varietal expression and just how downright juicy, chewy and delicious it was (under $20 at Spec's).
4. Sinskey Pinot Noir Carneros: Even though Sinskey tends to oak its reds more than I would like, the materia prima that goes into its wines is unerringly superb. As one of the pioneers of chemical-free grape growing in California, Robert Sinskey has set the benchmark for top-quality Pinot Noir, a grape that I love to reach for at summer grills because of its balance of tannic structure and lightness in body. The wines aren't cheap but they're well worth the price of admission -- just give them enough aeration to bring the wood back down to earth (under $40 at Spec's).
3. Soter Pinot Noir North Valley: These entry-tier wines from one of Oregon's top growers are a great value and they retain the same finesse that I love in the winemaker's "estate" wines. I've included two bottlings of Pinot Noir from California in this list. But when it comes to homegrown, I'm always going to look first to Oregon, where the cooler climate delivers that elegance (read balanced acidity and alcohol) that I love in this grape variety (under $30 at Spec's).
2. Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel Three Valleys: By the time beloved Sacramento wine guru Darrell Corti banned wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol from his store in 2007, Zinfandel -- a category that Darrell helped to create through his support of the wines in his landmark store -- had exploded into a boysenberry jam frat party shit storm. According to its site, the Ridge Zinfandel Three Valleys weighs in at around 14.4 percent, a far cry from the 17 percent "Zins" that you still see floating around. Always a classic from this Zinfandel pioneer and always great (around $25 at Spec's).
1. Copain Pinot Noir Tous Ensemble: The alcohol content is printed so tiny and so faint on the label of this wine that you'd think the producer was embarrassed of it: 12.9 percent. In my view, this should be a point of pride! In the vast field of California Pinot Noir, Copain stands out for its balance and restraint while still delivering the richness that folks expect from their California "Pinot" (around $30 at the Houston Wine Merchant).
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