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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Red wines that bear the heat: Berger Zweigelt and Cristom Pinot Noir
Cristom Pinot Noir: Not gregarious, but gifted all the same.
Cristom Pinot Noir: Not gregarious, but gifted all the same.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

It's been a tough summer for reds. Usually this time of year there are a few occasions to drink big, complex fruit bombs - wines that pair so well with foods like charred steaks and marinated portabella caps.

But the sweltry mess that has been the Drought of '12 has left little room for the flavorful bottles - oaked, even - that I consider when I see grillmarks. These will have to wait until the heat breaks.

Instead, I've been tiptoeing into lighter reds, and picking juice that can stand a little time in the icebox. Crash through the dogma surrounding correct temperature for wines, and you'll be rewarded with soothing alternatives to whites and rosés.

I recommend tossing different options in the fridge and seeing what works. As long as chilling doesn't render the wine flat and dull, it's fair game. Unsure where to start? Try a fridged Beaujolais or Spanish Rioja.

One of my favorite reds to chill right now is the Austrian 2010 Berger Zweigelt ($13). For those of you who are Grüner-hounds, you know that the Berger Grüner Veltliner remains one of the better deals for the money. It has a pop-top, comes in a liter bottle, and is cheap yet delicious - a perfect picnic bottle.

Berger's red offering, the Zweigelt, is worth a try as well. Big and luscious with a strong tobacco note, it tightens up in the cooler into a plum-y cola-y wunderkind with a peppery kick. Also a one-liter pop-top bottle, it's a deal. And, because it is still robust cold, this wine can go with full-flavored foods like barbecue or curried chicken salad.

Cristom Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Ore., has been one of my favorite Pinots for a long time. Veteran California Pinot winemaker Steve Doerner's minimalist hand delivers consistently nuanced wines that have a devoted following.

I think of Cristom Pinot as akin to one of those music albums you don't necessarily love at first, but then find yourself listening to again and again. This wine isn't gregarious, and it isn't the easiest to pair with food. Salmon might be its best mate.

But as the swirls of subtle elements make their way through your mouth - berry, apricot, spice, smoke, stone - there's no doubt that the bottle is gifted. It isn't a dumbed-down chart-topper; it's a breezy, jazzy opus.

A Cristom Pinot habit doesn't come cheap, so it's wonderful to see this bottle in town as a 375 ml. half bottle for $17. Give it a spin, but don't say I didn't warn you - you'll want another listen. Even try it cold.

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