“Wine cocktails are definitely a trend,” says Todd Thrasher, sommelier at the fine dining Restaurant Eve and mixologist at the hip PX lounge, both in Alexandria, Va. Thrasher has concocted a number of cocktails involving wine, including his version of the Champagne Cocktail, which involves Grand Marnier, Bacardi 151, house-made cherry bitters and, of course, Champagne. His Sparkling Mojito employs Champagne instead of sparkling water, and new on the list is the OMD, which contains Champagne and a syrup made with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, pineapple and ginger. Each is priced at $16.
Sparkling cocktails always are featured at the 16 restaurants at the 744-room The Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo. Here the sparkle comes from prosecco. “It’s a little lighter and less dominant than Champagne,” explains wine director Timothy Baldwin. “Prosecco also has some perceived sweetness to counterbalance citrus fruits.”
Available all over the property, the Sparkling Pear, $9.75, is composed of pear purée, Absolut Pears and prosecco. A current specialty of the formal Primrose Room at the resort is the Strawberry Litchee Fizz, $10.25, made with strawberry and lychee purées, orange-flavored vodka and prosecco. A perennial on the Summit’s list at the resort is the Sparkling Summit, $10.25; the current summer version includes passion fruit with Mionetto Prosecco, according to Baldwin.
The new wave of wine cocktails goes beyond the fizz as mixologists employ wine as a key component rather than as a base, using it to add layers of complexity.
“Wine has so many subtle flavors and nuances,” notes Thrasher. “It’s a ready-made cocktail ingredient with great flavor.”
“Wines come already perfectly balanced in terms of acid, fruit and tannin,” notes Duggan McDonnell, mixologist and partner at Cantina, a Latin-accented lounge in San Francisco. That kind of balance, says McDonnell, is key to a great drink. “Including wine in a cocktail helps it out a little bit; it’s a natural fit.”
About a third of the drinks on Cantina’s list—all priced at $9—feature wine in a small but starring role. The Blackberry and Cabernet Caipirinha contains muddled lime and blackberries with cachaça and Alberti Cabernet, and the Carmen Amaya is made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Cointreau, muddled basil and lemon with Amontillado sherry. One of the most popular is the Sommelier’s Sidecar, a mixture of single-barrel, late-harvest riesling brandy, Meyer lemon, Cointreau and Carmes de Rieussec Sauternes. “They’re not wine-based cocktails,” insists McDonnell, but spirits-based. “I use wine as a modifier.”
New techniques also are being implemented as part of the mix. Others modify the wine, preparing a reduction or concentrate to use as a cocktail component.
For example, Thrasher poaches cape gooseberries in New Zealand sauvignon blanc to make the Mona Lisa at Restaurant Eve, priced at $12. He also makes a syrup with a late-harvest chardonnay as the base.
“With a reduction, you get the intense wine flavor while still knowing you are drinking a cocktail and not just a glass of wine,” says Michael Danahy, owner of the Blue Grotto Restaurant in Providence, R.I. An entire section of the fine dining establishment’s beverage list is merchandised as “Wine-Inspired Cocktails,” priced at $10 each. Danahy was inspired one night when he ran out of cranberry juice and added wine to his vodka; he and his sous chef then experimented, discovering that a 50 percent reduction with a touch of sugar works perfectly. His take on the Mojito adds a float of reduced pinot grigio to the classic recipe. The Noble Martini combines Olifant Vodka with Damilano Barolo concentrate, and his Super Tuscan Martini mixes vodka with a Brancaia Tre wine reduction.
The cocktail concentrates—also including a Conundrum Meritage and a Sebastiani—all are taken from Blue Grotto’s wine list. They are expensive wines, concedes Danahy, but they work.
Those interviewed agree that it is important not to skimp on the quality of wine in the cocktail; a quality drink demands quality ingredients—and that includes high quality wine.
“Just like a chef wouldn’t use cheap wine to cook with, I wouldn’t use it in my cocktails,” points out Thrasher. Using Champagne instead of a generic sparkling wine adds a few dollars to the cost, he admits, but he feels the quality is worth the price.
That stated, using prosecco, cava or another sparkler instead of pricy Champagne can be good for the bottom line; basing cocktails on wine instead of more-expensive spirits or liqueurs also can help margins.
“I can’t tell you what I pay for the Chianti I use in my Tuscan Sangria, but I can tell you it’s a nice price point,” reveals McDonnell. “I’m a small-businessman. I have to make my margins, and using wine intelligently in cocktails allows me to do so.”
Knowing which wines work best in cocktails is where the sommelier’s expertise comes into play. “As a sommelier, I have a toolbox of great little wines, dessert wines and sherries that I already know about,” says Marcus Garcia, sommelier at French restaurant Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. Garcia is well acquainted with the sparkling Vouvray he floats atop his Martini Royale, $16, a drink made with muddled blueberries, lime, mint, açaí juice and Cognac. “It’s almost like a French 75,” says the sommelier, “but where Champagne can be too dry, the Vouvray has a natural sweetness and an apple-pear fruit quality.” Another riff on a classic is Fleur de Lys’ Triple 777, priced at $14, which basically is a rye Old Fashioned with blood orange bitters, muddled oranges and a float of Langhorne Creek Sparkling Shiraz. “The red sparkling wine looks cool in the drink, like an erupting volcano,” enthuses Garcia.
“A sommelier background can be beneficial when tasting cocktails during development—it provides insights,” says wine director Baldwin. At The Broadmoor, the wine team, mixologists and chefs collectively brainstorm to create new drinks. “We take all the talented people we can find, put them in a room together and see what comes out,” says Baldwin.
The wine influence helps drinks pair well with food, says Thrasher. “I definitely think they go well with food,” he says, noting that people will try matching his wine cocktails with food, especially cheeses.
“If cocktails are designed to be aromatic and have tannin and spice like a great glass of wine does, they can be good with food,” adds McDonnell at Cantina.
“Lower-alcohol wine cocktails are great if customers are going to then sit down and do a wine pairing,” believes Garcia, “because with less heat on the palate, they’re still going to be fresh and awake for the fine wines and foods to follow.”
Which begs the question: Can these vinous hybrids win over both wine-only fans and confirmed cocktailians?
“These drinks are the answer to the age-old question: When you sit down to dinner and have to decide, do you want wine right now or do you want a cocktail?” notes Danahy, referring to his wine cocktails.“Yes, I think these cocktails might win over a wine drinker,” says McDonnell, “with the caveat that the cocktail has to be perfectly balanced, just like their favorite glass of sauvignon blanc.” The drinks also still should appeal to cocktail drinkers, McDonnell says, because they still are spirits-based and can use fresh fruit and bitters, key cocktail elements. “Wine cocktails appeal to both crowds; it’s a nice marriage.”