Modern wine lovers do something that our ancestors could barely comprehend: we drink it straight up. The ancient Greeks diluted every share of wine with two or three parts water, sometimes using sea water to make it extra “smooth.” They believed that unadulterated wine caused insanity, and one city-state legislated death for anyone who drunk it neat without doctor’s orders. Through the Middle Ages, mulling wine with fruit, sugar and spice was widespread. In 18th century Portugal and France, wine of uncertain quality was bolstered with brandy, a practice which has evolved into today’s port.
That we no longer need to mask the taste of wine is a sign of its dramatic and universal improvement in the last 100 years. Yet the modern pursuit of the pure taste of terroir obscures the simple fact that wine still makes an excellent mixer. It offers a balance between fruitiness and acidity that makes an ideal baseline for many cocktails. Now that there’s a new obsession with mixology, the art of the wine cocktail is slowly coming back into fashion.
“Very popular is the French 75,” Oliver Stern told me. He’s the bartender at the Toronto Temperance Society, a members’ only social club in Toronto that caters to cocktail purists. Their excellent menu revives several classic recipes based on sparkling. For his mixes, Stern uses a moderately priced Spanish bubbly; the subtler nuances in an expensive Champagne would be wasted against so many strong flavours. “If I’m making a margarita, I’m not going to reach for a $100 tequila.”
Not all wine cocktails have to be chic. Perhaps the most popular mix — one that is imbibed everywhere from Australian nightclubs to Chinese banquets — is 50/50 red wine and Coke. It sounds awful to the connoisseur. However, seen from a historical perspective, I’d have to say Coke is a better mix than salt water.
Into the Short Cellar
Segura Viudas “Brut Reserva” Cava
$14.55, Spain, LCBO #216960
Cava (which just means “cellar”) is the term for Spanish sparkling wine made in the traditional style. Most Cava is an excellent value, but the Segura Viudas especially stands out. Complex notes of bread and mushroom are brightened with flares of citrus. Great on its own or excellent in a summer cocktail. 89/100
Bodegas Cast año 2008 “Hécula” Monastrell
$13.95, Yecla, Spain, Vintages #718999
Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre), is a grape that’s vying for international attention — a Shiraz for people who are too good to drink Shiraz. The Hécula is a particularly good specimen that offers the grape’s classic flavours: a peppery and animalistic musk. It’s so rich, it can even stand up to Coke. 89/100
The Short Cellar’s favourite wine cocktails
Mix things up this summer
- Sangria in North America is just a baroque fruit punch. The Spanish recipe is simpler and more delicious: mix a fruity red wine with lemon juice, club soda and sugar to taste.
- The French 75 is gin (2 oz.), lemon juice (1 oz.) and simple syrup (1 oz.). Shake, strain and top up the glass with dry bubbly. For an Italian twist, omit the syrup and use an offdry Prosecco.
- The Purple Plague is visually striking, with the added benefit of tasting good: mix rosé (4 oz.), Chambord raspberry liqueur (1.5 oz.) and club soda (2 oz.), and serve over ice.
Matthew Sullivan is a civil litigator in Toronto. He blogs once a month here on lawandstyle.ca. The Short Cellar column also appears in the print edition of Precedent. Matthew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow along on Twitter: @shortcellar.