Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Today’s installment: What are wine coolers and what wines make the best ones?
Wine cocktails get a bad rap, and much of that ill will can be blamed on the wine cooler. Broadly defined as a combination of (usually cheap) wine, fruit juice, sugar, and carbonated water, wine coolers were maddeningly popular in the 1980s. It’s also not terribly surprising that some people think wine fridges when they hear wine coolers, and that a lot of people shudder when they think of them at all.
Its precursor — the spritzer — however, increasingly the gold-standard when it comes to delicious, refreshing, summertime drinks. But whether it’s disdain or adoration you feel towards the humble cooler, it all depends on how you frame it. That is, if you can separate wine coolers from the 1980s — and forget sugar-laden, brands like Seagram’s — well, you just might love them.
New York restaurateur and empire builder Ariel Arce — who cut her teeth at beverage temples The Office, Pops for Champagne, and Birds and Bubbles — serves two coolers on the cocktail list at her Manhattan Champagne chapel, Air’s Champagne Parlor. There’s the What Would Bill Murray Do, which is Champagne on ice with bitters and expressed lemon — that’s twisting, rubbing, and dropping a citrus rind in and around the glass; and the Bugey on Ice, just Bugey Cerdon, a little known French appellation exclusively turning out excellent sparkling rosé made from gamay and poulsard, on ice with expressed orange.
Arce believes that the wine cooler is open to interpretation, with her favorite iteration being some version of bubbly on ice with citrus zest; and something everyone should try making. But, as a preacher of all things bubbles, she does have some recommendations first.
1. Throw out the still-wine-with-seltzer recipes
Ideally, according to Arce, you’ll consider using sparkling wine on ice instead of a still wine with fizzy water, since that water will just dilute an otherwise excellent sipper. Sticking with wines that already sparkle means you can focus on adding spritzes of real fruit and twists of citrus. And if you are going with something bubble-free, Arce thinks any color will do.
2. Pick a bottle that’s already fruit-forward
“You want to think of wine coolers as a way of expressing the best quality of the wine,” says Arce. Which, she adds, is exactly why you should look for wines that are more rich and where fruit is present already, instead of focussing on the addition of artificial fruit or sugar. Arce specifically calls out fruit-forward rieslings, ripe California wines, French wines with wood in them, and some western-American wines.
“Look for wines from warmer regions, wines with more ripeness to it; anything with more fruit, or more residual sugar would be fun.” For Arce there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t think of making a wine cooler like any other cocktail: you want to use a lot of quality bases that will stand up.
As far as what to avoid, Arce suggests staying away from anything too light, incredibly complex anythings, and a lot of wines coming from Mount Etna in Italy, where wines are characterized by spritely and crisp acidity. “These are already relatively fresh wines, adding anything to it would just make that disappear.”
“So many different wines in the world have their own integrity,” says Arce. “If you go to the south of France you’ll see them drinking rose and glou glou wine on ice.”
3. You don’t need to spend too much
Too many cooler recipes out there make a case for grocery aisle and convenience wines when, really, you want to use something relatively inexpensive but still of good quality. “Sure, in theory the best thing would be some super-rich white Burgundy,” says Arce. But, if you’re going to be changing the cohesion of the wine, there isn’t a lot of use in spending more than $15 on it, she says, adding that there are a lot of great wines to be found in that range.
Ultimately, says Arce, “if it intrigues you to create a cocktail where the base of it is wine, just go for it.”