Several years ago I attended a bibulous summer-afternoon barbecue at a home on the beach. Anticipating that the fete would carry on well into the night, I declined the high-octane rum punch and opted instead for white wine - a California chardonnay whose name I no longer recall.
After two hours in the hot sun and nearly three glasses of wine I was overtaken by slight light-headedness and fatigue. Spotting a hammock out of view of the revelers, I hopped in for a 10-minute battery charge. Two hours later, I was awakened by loud music, barely in time to snag the last skewer of grilled teriyaki chicken.
As it turned out, the chardonnay in question contained 15 percent alcohol (by volume), considerably more than average - most white wines come in between 7 and 13 percent, while reds are generally 11 percent or higher.
Three or four percentage points may not sound like much, but believe me, if you drink enough of it - of course, weight and metabolism come into play - especially under a searing summer sun, you could be seeking out a chaise lounge before the grilling coals are ready.
Fortunately, lighter wines are increasing in popularity and availability, in part a backlash to a wine industry trend in the past decade toward mind-addling alcoholic monsters. The alcohol content of wine derives from the ripeness of grapes when harvested - the riper the grapes the more sugar in the juice, which converts to alcohol during fermentation. For dry wines, all of the sugar is fermented; for sweeter wines, fermentation is stopped prematurely, leaving a little of what they call "residual" sugars.
Vinifying lower-alcohol wines calls for picking the grapes prematurely, but there is a risk that the result will be thin and watery. Some resort to a process called "de-alcoholization" (I could have used that at the barbecue). The most successful method involves picking some grapes when underripe and others at the peak of ripeness, then blending them.
As rule, higher-alcohol wines come from hot climates like California, South Africa and Australia, where grapes achieve the highest levels of sugar.
Frequently, novice wine drinkers are weaned on these vinous barbells, in wine schools or in restaurants, leading them to presume that most good reds are "hot," an industry term for high in alcohol.
"My students are universally shocked to learn that so much good wine out there is very light and elegant, great for easy summer drinking," observed Brian Freedman, director of education at the Philadelphia Wine School. Mr. Freedman is keen on whites from Portugal and Spain, as well as on certain sparkling wines.
Ryan Margolis, one of the owners of the restaurant 707, on Chestnut Street, has augmented his 200-label wine list with some unusual selections from Germany, Austria and Portugal.
"More of our restaurant guests are getting turned off by the big wines, and they're asking for dry and fresh alternatives," he said. "And I'm finding now that Philadelphia wine drinkers today are much more willing to take a chance on something new."
Europeans, above all the French, are partial to lighter wines. A fine example is muscadet from the western Loire, close to the Atlantic. Bright and faintly tart, with citrus nuances and about 12 percent alcohol, muscadet is considered the ultimate complement to shellfish. And for the money, you cannot beat the sprightly vinho verdes from Portugal, which can be as low as 8 percent alcohol - a couple of degrees above beer. Lithe, refreshing, and with a touch of effervescence, they are irresistible at $8 to $12.
Next door, along Spain's rainy Atlantic coast, is a distinctive white wine that recently has become quite the chic beverage in restaurants - albariño. Similar in composition to vinho verde, albarinos are a little more fragrant and fruity.
If you like off-dry whites, seek out German rieslings from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer or the Rheingau. The labels can be bafflingly complex, but look for the term spätlese (SPATE-lays-uh) for off-dry, and kabinett for dry. German wines have yet to catch on in this country, largely because of those labels and a public perception that all are very sweet. As a result, you can find excellent examples for as little as $10. Another source of first-rate rieslings is the chilly Finger Lakes region of New York.
For something different at your next summer bash, serve a sparkling wine. Starting as low as 6 percent alcohol, they make perfect aperitifs. Try a Moscato d'Asti, from the Piedmont region of Italy, a semisweet "frizzante" wine, a term that indicates it is not as bubbly as champagne. At only 6 percent, it is bright and lively, with lots of ripe fruit. From the Veneto area comes the bone-dry prosecco (another frizzante, at 11.5 percent alcohol), that is reminiscent of green apples. The best carry the designation "Superiore di Cartizze."
Spanish cava, which is produced in the traditional champagne method, is enjoying considerable success in this country. Crisp and flinty, it ranges comes in at 10-12 percent, and can be had for as little as $10. At this time of year, I like to make sparkling- wine cocktails by adding a purée of fresh peaches, raspberries or blackberries.
Philadelphia-area restaurants have caught on to the demand for lighter summer wines and are presenting a a wide range.
At Vintage, the French bistro on South 13th Street, where sixty wines are sold by the glass, owner Delphine Evenchik makes of point of informing customers of the alcohol level in every wine.
"They really appreciate knowing that, and are sometimes surprised," she said.
Meritage, on South 20th Street, carries some unusual light wines on its 200-label list, including two reds: a 2003 Valpolicella Classico from Italy, and a 2004 Château Bonnet from Bordeaux.
Another good spot for light imbibing is the tapas bar Tria, on South 18th Street, or its newest location at 1137 Spruce St. Michael McCaulley, one of the owners who selects the wines, enjoys the customer comments when they taste them next to more substantial wines.
"While they may not be aware of what they are tasting, they definitely notice the exceptional freshness and light body," he notes. "And most important, they feel so good when they are drinking it."
Grilled Monkfish Brochettes With Orange Butter Sauce
Makes 6 servings
2¼ pounds skinless monkfish fillets, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces (about 3 dozen)
1 sweet yellow pepper, cut into bite-sized squares
1 sweet red pepper, cut into bite-sized squares
2 cups fresh orange juice
½ cup chopped scallions (including most of the green section)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves
1. Place 6 pieces of monkfish on each skewer, alternating with the red and yellow peppers. Set aside.
2. In a saucepan, combine the orange juice, scallions, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce by half over the grill or on a stovetop. Add the butter, tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. When the butter has melted, set the sauce aside in a warm spot while you cook the brochettes.
3. Brush the brochettes with the oil and place them over the grill. Cook until done, about 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Place the brochettes on serving plates. Pour the sauce over them and garnish with the coriander.
Lime-Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, about 1½ pounds
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (or lemon juice)
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 tablespoon dry
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons melted butter, hot
1. Preheat a charcoal or gas grill.
2. Cut the breasts lengthwise down the center. Cut away and discard any fat and membranes.
3. Put the oil in a mixing bowl with the lime juice, chili powder, turmeric, cumin, rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper.
4. Blend well and add the chicken. Turn the chicken in the marinade to coat well. Cover and set aside for at least one hour, refrigerated.
5. Place the chicken pieces on the grill and cover. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes, possibly longer for large pieces. Remove chicken and brush with the melted butter. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 6): 205 calories, 26 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 10 grams fat, 76 milligrams cholesterol, 104 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber