Sips Beyond Sangria
There is a Felice Brothers song with the line, “I drink whiskey in my whiskey.” Many of my wine geek friends tend to hold to that philosophy… that wine as a sacred, precious thing to be unaltered or unadulterated by any other means than service temperature and the shape of the glass you pour it in.
That’s not me. Though I can intelligently navigate a restaurant wine list, still reminisce on the 1997 bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia I had on my 40th birthday, and even differentiate between Auslese and Spätlese Rieslings (and Trocken, forget about it), I am still that Philistine who doesn’t think twice about filling a pint glass with ice, topping it with a good (too good for ice) New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and heading to the hammock for some “quality time.”
One of the things that makes wine so incredible is that, from grape to grape, vintner to vintner and terroir to terroir (say that three times fast), there is such a wide range of distinct characteristics and nuances in fermented juice. And with those characteristics you find yourself with a beverage that lends itself to being an ideal cocktail ingredient… as long as you don’t consider it too “precious” for mixing.
What you will find in the following words is me playing with my wine, figuring out how it may work as a component… without resorting to that kitchen sink of wine concoctions that is sangria.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, I have been known to blaspheme New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs by pouring them over ice. Here is why… I love the sharp, grapefruity citrus flavor inherent in whites from that part of the world. Served really cold, with just a touch of dilution from the ice, NZ Sauvignon Blancs make a refreshing, quaffable beverage that is perfect for an afternoon on the beach or après grass cutting (when there is no PBR in the fridge). Thinking of some way to legitimize my icing habits, I figured that by adding a couple more ingredients to the glass, I can call my beverage a “cocktail” and not simply an abasement of good wine. (We all have things we tell ourselves.)
Gin and grapefruit juice is my brother’s favorite cocktail. (It’s just one of the things that he shares in common with Snoop Dogg.) And who can blame him? The piney herbaceousness of gin pairs so beautifully with the sharp bitter citrus of fresh grapefruit juice to make for a serious summertime sipper. (Note: you may notice that I said “fresh” grapefruit juice. There is no way that anything out of a bottle/jar/box/tiny little can will compare to the flavor of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice in a cocktail. There just isn’t. When you come across an establishment where the bartenders take the effort and care to squeeze their own citrus, go there… often… and tip well.)
A Spritzer by Any Other Name
Early on in my bartending career, I found myself standing behind clothed folding table at many a beer-and-wine-only wedding reception. There, whilst pouring cheap wine from Methuselah-sized bottles into tiny clear plastic cups and popping the tops of Michelob Lights (long before the days of Ultra were these), I would invariably be asked for a wine spritzer by someone with too-tall hair and wobbly in their too-tall heels (generally female). In this environment, a wine spritzer consisted of: icing a glass and filling with equal parts of whatever white (or pink) wine you had on hand and Sprite (or ginger ale), then garnishing it with whatever sad fruit you had in your garnish bin (usually an oversized orange wheel and a neon, cherry-like thing). The person calling for said wine spritzer could be summed up by one (or all) of these three things:
I want to be drunk at this wedding, but I like neither the taste of beer nor wine.
I am not really quite old enough to be consuming alcohol at this wedding.
I have no tolerance for alcohol and too much of the Sutter Home might cause me to Electric Boogaloo on the dance floor with Granna to the Journey cover band.
In time, the word “spritzer” came to become the common derogation our crew of drink slingers would bestow upon anyone with neither the stamina nor good taste to drink good booze. “Spritzer boy at table 13 wants another pearl diver… and he said to make sure it’s brighter green this time!”
Over the 27 years I have been bartending (and 31 years drinking), I have come to appreciate the low-octane cocktail, because there are times when you would like to have a boozy beverage, but you shouldn’t invest the rest of your day in the venture. (Sunday brunch… I repeat, Sunday brunch.) You could opt for the complimentary mimosa (professional recommendation: be skeptical of any alcoholic beverage given away for free), but why don’t you have this instead.
Join Chris and edible Upcountry at M. Judson, Booksellers and Storytellers for a sample of The Pinot-Fashioned
Sunday August 2, 5pm, 130 South Main Street, Greenville, www.mjudsonbooks.com
The old guys who cut my grass ask me to save my wine bottles for them for the fruit “wines” they make in their shed using some sort of Greer lore and 5-gallon Home Depot buckets…apples, strawberries, plums and watermelon may all find their way into those ubiquitous orange pails. Thwarted by fears of dysentery and Van Gogh-like madness, I could never bring myself to try the samples they would leave behind for me, but the “idea” of strawberry wine sounds so appealing. Theoretically, it’s exactly what you should be drinking in those early opening days of sundress and seersucker season when the sun has found the heat to warm, but not yet sear…maybe you’re even wearing a straw hat without (too much) irony.
So how do I catch that essence without resorting to the pink murkiness I occasionally find in a jelly jar on my back steps? Infusion time! Distilled alcohol does a fine job of extracting the flavors of fresh fruit… wine should do the same thing, and leave me with a sippable result without the alcohol overpowering the fruit (and me).
This project requires a wine that’s not sweet already, to prevent cloying end results, but I can’t travel too far in the other direction either... the inherent tartness of the berries mixed with an acidic wine, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre, could be too tart to enjoy. In the end, I landed on a lightly oaked Washington state Chardonnay. The light pear and green apple notes balanced by the touch of butteriness from the malolactic fermentation let the brightness of the strawberries shine through.
So, I filled a liter Mason jar with a quart of cut strawberries (not diced, quartered is fine… green caps removed, obvi) and topped it with a bottle of Waterbrook Chardonnay (not terribly expensive, but not that three dollar grocery store plonk that may or may not poison you) and stuck it in the fridge. After a couple days I double-strained and decanted it back into a clean wine bottle. The end result was all that I had hoped for. The strawberry flavor was pronounced and pleasant, but it was still a wine and not one of those saccharine wine coolers that I won’t admit to have drunk in high school.
But it wasn’t a cocktail.
This is a cocktail…