For Epicurious, by Joe Sevier.
Page your besties and don your baggy flannel, because wine cooler drinks are back. With modern, sleek packaging (cans, not bottles), a retro-chic vibe, and — get this — actual high-quality wine, these new-school options don’t even have to be sipped ironically. Unless that’s your thing.
First, a little backstory: Wine coolers first entered the zeitgeist in the early 1980s. Although mixing wine with fresh fruit juice is as old as wine-making itself, the Spandex Decade is when the “wine cooler” term was coined and the first wine-juice combos were sold on the mass market. Many brands used lower-quality wines to fill their bottles, rounding them out with plenty of sugar, flavorings, and other additives.
In 1991, a wide-ranging American deficit-reduction plan included a tax increase on wine that quintupled its price per gallon, as well as a 37.5 percent increase on artificially carbonated wine. After that, even cheap wine was too expensive for these coolers, and some popular brands swapped the wine out for malt liquor, thereby creating “Zomething different.”
But in the last year or two, a new crop of wine coolers have emerged, and they’re a zillion miles away from the cloying, neon-hued ones of days past. In fact, they’re often being produced by or in collaboration with established wine makers. The already delicious wines are then blended with real fruit juice, which is what makes them wine coolers. They often go by less-stigmatized monikers such as “wine cocktail,” spritzer, or even sangria (even though true sangria is fortified with hard liquor). The Epicurious staff tasted a slew of these fancy wine coolers — here are the ones we found ourselves falling for:
BEST WINE COOLERS FOR SUMMER
What is it? Jordan Salcito is a former sommelier and wine director for restaurants such as Momofuku and Eleven Madison Park. She’s also the founder of Bellus Wines. Her first foray into wine coolers is called Ramona — named for the quirky literary ingenue — and is made with wine from organic Italian grapes, plus “ruby grapefruit flavors”.
How’s it taste? Straight up like sweetened grapefruit juice. While it has the slight, refreshing bitterness inherent in fresh grapefruit juice, and a slight sparkle, some of the Epi team found it a tad too sweet. Overall though, this was one of our favorites and it gets even better when poured over ice.
What is it? Co-Founders Erik Grossberg and Wyatt Carder partnered up to release their first flavor, Rosé Lime, in 2013. They’ve since released a few limited-batch offerings and this season released French 75 and Blood Orange Spritz flavors, too. All flavors are made with Muscadet grapes from the Loire Valley and while they take inspiration from boozier drinks, contain no spirits—only wine, fruit juices, and aromatics.
How’s it taste? The Rosé Lime offering hits a little too heavy on the lime zest front, but it’s dry and crisp, with background flavors of passion fruit. The French 75, flavored with lemon, juniper, and elderflower, drinks a bit like a Hefeweizen beer — a little yeasty, but light and quaffable. The Blood Orange Spritz is their take on a Campari Spritz. It delivers on that distinctive deep flavor of blood oranges, and it’s light, delicious, and super beachy.
What is it? Los Angeles–based chef Josh Rosenstein is the brains behind this offering, which starts with wine made from Missouri-grown Catawba grapes. These spritzers are juice free, and are instead a blend of wine, carbonated water, and various aromatics like lemon, ginger, and linden — an old-school herb that’s often turned into a restorative tea.
How’s it taste?: The rosé-based Lemon-Ginger is very dry, with a medicinal quality that turned several of our tasters off. The blanc-based Lemon-Linden however skewed the other direction. It has a savory quality that makes it pair exceptionally well with food and an herbal, lemon-drop like aftertaste that finishes dry and delicate.
What is it? Portland-based wine maker Ryan Sharp started making these spritzes when he had an excess of naturally-fermented Syrah rosé and no bottles in which to transfer it. Instead, he kegged it, blended in some fresh berry juice, and put it on tap at his tasting room Enso. After word got out, he could barely keep it around. The brand has recently released two additional Riesling-based flavors: Blueberry-Basil and Lemon-Ginger With Rosemary.
How’s it taste? We didn’t sample their original rosé-based offering, but it’s been a favorite at the tasting room since at least 2010. Of the Riesling-based offerings, we especially liked the Lemon-Ginger With Rosemary. It tastes like drinkable, bubbly rosemary shortbread. The blueberry offering is also very good, almost like a sort-of-boozy sparkling grape juice.
NEW WINE COOLERS THAT KICK IT OLD-SCHOOL
What is it?: New to the US — and to the individually-packaged market—this Spanish brand offers a Cabernet and Merlot–based wine cooler and a Muscat and Airén–based white one.
How’s it taste?: Excessively sweet. The red was called syrupy by more than one taster. However, the red did have nice cherry notes, while the white had a good citrusy backbone; so they could be used as a base for punches if thinned out with dry sparkling wine or a neutral spirit.
What is it?: Austin, Texas-based Mighty Swell is the one wine cooler on the list that doesn’t start with grape wine. Instead, entrepreneur Sean Cusack, Clayton Christopher — formerly of Deep Eddy Vodka — and distiller Daniel Barnes start their drink with Floridian orange wine. They currently offer three flavors: Grapefruit, Lemon, and Peach.
How’s it taste?: Like the faux-fruit–flavored wine coolers you remember. The brand advertises “all natural” status, but most of our tasters thought they tasted more like a candy store’s idea of what those fruits tastes like, rather than an orchard farmer’s. Then again, more than one taster — for that very same reason — liked them the best of the bunch.
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