I’m not too fond of mixed drinks probably because I think of them as sweet, not pairing with food very well, and getting me more tipsy than I would like. I readily admit that these misconceptions may stem from ignorance and inexperience, but then again, life is too short and I’ve chosen wine as my alcoholic poison/passion of choice. Fine wine fuels my love of both travel and food, sparks my curiosity with its backstory, and captures my interest from year to year, varietal to varietal. Given that I am keenly aware of the care and energy going into its making, I revere fine wine like others might a piece of artwork: I would never presume to mess with a masterpiece.
So the latest trend of wine cocktails really had me baffled. I understand people from the old country like Vincent’s parents put ice cubes in their homemade wine. As for me, the most I would “adulterate” a wine would be to stick it in the refrigerator. Then again, I suppose I do like a good Sangria on a warm afternoon. Oh, and Kir Royales are fun for special occasions. And I do love glühwien (hot mulled red wine) after a long day of skiing. But those aren’t really made with “good” wines. I would never (ever?) adulterate a fine wine.
So what exactly are these wine cocktails I keep hearing about? A revival of wine coolers? The good news is no, we don’t need to relive the fashions of the 1980s with the likes of fruity, sweet, insipid Boone’s Farm. Instead, my primary realization is that the vast majority of today’s wine cocktails are really sparkling wine cocktails made with Prosecco, Champagne, or the like. Perhaps a bit more creative than a mimosa or bellini—but along the same lines: alcohol + bubbles + light sweetness. Makes sense. Other wine cocktails are made by adding fruit to a fairly bland, cheap wine base such as a sweet rosé or moscato.
But the true revelation for me are the wine cocktails involving bitters, a type of alcohol I didn’t think much about. Bitters are made by infusing a distilled spirit (or reduced wine) with an intricate mix of roots, barks, spices, herbs, fruit peels and botanicals. You might recognize vermouth, amaro (which means “bitter” in Italian) and chinato as types of bitters. Familiar brands include Angostura, Lillet, Aperol, and Campari. While some bitters are meant to be enjoyed by themselves as an aperitif or digestif, the ones we’re interested in are the “cocktail bitters” used in very small amounts, measured in drops or dashes. While you can certainly buy decent ones from BarKeep or Scrappy’s, most experienced bartenders will make their own signature cocktail bitters.
My favorite wine cocktails use a few drops of bitters added to a fruit-forward wine along with some sort of bubbles (sparkling water or wine). The bitters add an amazing counterpoint, depth and complexity to the base wine. A good example is the White Rhône Cocktail using either 3Divas or Delizia, developed in conjunction with Laura and Tara at Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg. The saffron bitters add a new dimension and intriguing savory note to fruit-floral-honey flavors of the wine. Don’t worry about “watering down” the wine since a flavorful wine like 3Divas or Delizia still shines through. And since this wine cocktail is much lower in alcohol, Vincent and I can enjoy a couple glasses to quench our thirst.
Would I ever sit down to enjoy a nice dinner with a wine cocktail? No, but now at least I can appreciate a good wine cocktail at a nice brunch, on a hot afternoon, or before dinner. Another great thing about wine cocktails is that they are fun to experiment with—especially when bitters are involved. Try it… you may like it!