Grown-Up Wine Cocktails, Broken Down

You've got four basic families of cocktail-ready wines, and a whole lot of mouthwatering options.

Wine. You buy it in a bottle, you pour it in a glass. Sometimes it’s white, other times, red. It's what you drink when trying to make “healthier life choices.” What else can you say, really? Apparently, quite a bit. And while the wine world is plenty complex on its own, you can take a tangential road by studying up on how the stuff applies to mixed drinks.

Chances are that if you’ve tried at least a handful of cocktails in your time, one of them was a wine cocktail, whether you know it or not. And no, we’re not talking about those tepid Seagrams Escapes you snuck behind the garage in middle school.

In the world of wine cocktails, you have basically four families to choose from: sparkling, aromatized, fortified and distilled, with some crossover cousins in between. While it may sound like you need dual degrees in botany and chemistry for this to make sense, you really just need to know what to look for in the liquor store. We can help with that.

Sparkling Wine

Champagne and prosecco are the most readily available examples of sparkling wine. There are several differences between the two, including the facts that Champagne is French (from the Champagne region, go figure), made from pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay grapes, and is produced through a process called champenoise. Prosecco is Italian (from the Veneto region) made from glera grapes and is produced through a process called charmat. Champagne tends to be a bit more expensive.

Some common cocktails made with sparkling wines are the Bellini (prosecco and peach puree), Buck’s Fizz/Mimosa (both with orange juice and Champagne, in different amounts) and the French 75, named for the primary field gun employed by the French in World War I. As most artillery pieces in the Great War, it apparently had quite a dramatic kick, as does its cocktail namesake.

The French 75

  1. In a chilled shaker, combine two ounces London dry gin, one teaspoon sugar, and one half ounce lemon juice.
  2. Shake vigorously and strain into a Collins glass with ice.
  3. Top off with Champagne.

Fortified Wine

Fortified wine is simply wine combined with a distilled spirit – usually brandy. The combination was made long ago to keep wine on the shelf (or in the cask) longer, since the ethanol produced acts as a natural preservative. Port, madeira, and sherry are all examples of fortified wines. Naturally, they’re all pretty robust and can be featured on their own as digestifs, in cocktails, or especially, in punches.

Though all fortified wines have their merits, sherry has enjoyed a particular boom in the last couple of years. Any cocktail bar worth its salt (or sugar, or bitters) likely has a sherry-forward offering on the menu. One oldie-but-goodie is credited with the introduction of the straw to the cocktail.

Sherry Cobbler

  1. Muddle two or three orange slices with one tablespoon sugar in a chilled mixer.
  2. Add three and one half ounces sherry (preferably amontillado sherry) and ice. Shake until your hand starts to freeze.
  3. Strain into a Collins glass filled with crushed ice.
  4. Garnish with mint and a straw.

Aromatized Wine

The only difference between aromatized and fortified wines is the extra step of infusion with spices, herbs, fruit or flowers. And according to a law in the Eurpoean Union (Europe takes wine quite seriously), aromatized wine must have a minimum alcohol content of 14.5 percent by volume, and a maximum of 22 percent.

Once used for medicinal purposes, aromatized wines can be served as an aperitif or part of a cocktail. Similar to liqueurs, they can also star as the main ingredient of their own rather light brand of cocktail, nixing the introduction of any stronger spirits.

Recognizable genuses of aromatized wines include americano, quinquina, and of course, vermouth. And the fact that it's a type of wine is why you shouldn’t let vermouth just sit around for six months. While it’s more shelf stable than regular wine, it certainly doesn’t get better with age once it’s open. Putting it in the fridge seems to help keep it better for longer, but not indefinitely.

Of course, dozens of cocktails feature vermouth, both dry and sweet. But another aromatized wine with a little less play in home bars is Lillet Blanc. And we can’t talk about Lillet without mentioning the James Bond original – Ian Fleming made up this drink in his 1958 Bond classic Casino Royale.

The Vesper Martini

  1. Chill mixing and martini glasses for 10 minutes, then add three ounces gin, one ounce vodka and one half to one ounce Lillet Blanc to mixing glass, plus ice.
  2. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds, then strain into a martini glass.
  3. Garnish with lemon.

Distilled Wine

In the English-speaking world, distilled wine is brandy, and brandy is distilled wine. Distillation effectively stops wine’s fermentation process and draws water out of it, thus increasing potency, both in flavor and alcohol.

Cognac is a brandy produced in the Cognac area of France. Grappa is the Italian version, made from the waste products (seeds, skins, stems, vines) of grapes used in winemaking. Pisco, of Pisco Sour fame, is distilled from grapes grown in Chile and Peru. These can all be used just like any other hearty spirit in cocktails. Though there are a surprising number of brandy-based cocktails, one seldom mentioned is the Metropolitan - born in the late 1800s, as vermouth came into its own in the American drinkscape.

The Metropolitan

  1. Combine two ounces Cognac, one ounce sweet vermouth, one half teaspoon orange liqueur (Cointreau, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec), and a dash of bitters in a shaker.
  2. Fill the shaker with ice and shake until your hand starts to freeze.
  3. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

So there you have it. While there is certainly nothing wrong (and so much right) with a simple bottle of red or white, there are dozens of ways to enjoy the fruit of the vine. No more tour de Franzia for you, friend. Better vintages await.

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