Hopped Wine: Marketing Fad or Crossover Sensation?

June 11, 2018

By Maggie Hennessy, June 11, 2018

The drinking world is chock-full of gimmickry, from perfumed and chocolate-flavored wines to diamond-distilled vodka and maple-bacon doughnut beers. On first glance, you may understandably dismiss hopped wine as another ploy to lure more bros into the fermented grape category.

But there might be more to the latest vintner experiment. Much in the way winemaking elements are making their way into the beer brewing—from fermenting in wine barrels to blending beers—the practice of aging wine on hops is gaining ground as a means to tame sweetness and create aromatic depth, mainly among a few winemaker riding the wave of accessible, upmarket wine coolers and spritzers.

Andrew Jones, the vineyard representative of Sunridge Nurseries and winemaker at Paso Robles, California-based Field Recordings, started experimenting a few years ago by adding hops to grenache rosé as a refining agent and flavor and aroma enhancer. He’s since expanded into spritzers and is even dry-hopping oenophile darling Pétillant-Naturel to lend complexity and microbial stability to this living wine. Even so, he approaches the entire category tentatively—much like he would grape blend selection and oak aging in winemaking. He’s even more restrained in what he actually brings to market.

If someone starts adding hops to spice up an already bad wine, the category could be ruined really fast.”

“I don’t want us to turn into a hop experiment,” says Jones. “Plus, hopped wine can get put in the gimmick category, depending on which producers get into it. If someone starts adding hops to spice up an already bad wine, the category could be ruined really fast.”

The only two products that have become core production items for Field Recordings fit into near-opposite categories: Foxie, an upmarket wine spritzer and Dry Hop Pét-Nat. What they do share is Jones’ fearless approach to beverage production. After all, he was the first California winemaker to can still red wine.

Jones’ first foray into non-beer dry-hopping was actually through his cider company Tin City, which produces dry-hopped, barrel-fermented ciders that undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, resulting in a crisp hard cider that drinks more like sparkling wine. After that, he tossed some hop pellets into neutral pinot grigio, not unlike a brewer testing hops in a light beer like Coors. “It added dimension and aromatic complexity,” he says. “I thought, ‘This could work.’”

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

Hopped Rosé All Day

It took considerable back and forth with the government to receive packaging approval (Jones had to clearly state that the role of the hops was as a refining agent and that the product contained no grain) before Field Recordings debuted the 2015 Citra Rosé in cans.

Not long after, he was approached by Los Angeles-based private chef Josh Rosenstein. You may have heard of Rosenstein’s low-octane line of Hoxie wine spritzers, which is single-handedly “making the category cool again,” per Fast Company.

“Josh first approached us to help can his spritzer product, but once I learned about his process, I thought we could make a really awesome spritzer incorporating hops for more texture,” Jones says.

He starts by blending saignée—the bleed-off juice of mourvedre, tempranillo and grenache—to make rosé, then ferments it and adds mineral water to dilute the alcohol to 7%. It’s transferred to a bigger tank with simcoe hops and dried grapefruit peel for five to seven days before it’s carbonated and canned. This crisp, light 12-ouncer offers up subtle cherry and raspberry flavors, while the piney-green hops lend body and heighten the bitter-citrus quality of the grapefruit.

Jones and Rosenstein took 132 cases to San Francisco’s 2017 Outside Lands Music Festival, which they blew through in just over a day. Now Foxie is distributed to 20 states, and the roster has grown to include quince and sour cherry hopped spritzers. While he won’t guess who his core customer is this early, Jones says the Foxie has shown broad appeal, particularly among men.

“People are looking for a more refreshing, everyday wine product,” Jones says. “For me the spritzer has great utility to get people more into wine. I think it’s an entry point to bring some of that energy from craft beer to wine.”

Hops are essential to the aroma and bitterness in our radler.”

He’s not alone. Ryan Harms, founder and owner of Union Wine Co. in Tualatin, OR—makers of Underwood canned wines—similarly noticed the trend toward higher-end wine coolers, fruit beer and spritzers, so he huddled with his head of research and development. “Fifty recipe iterations later, we had Union’s take on a refreshing summertime radler,” he says.

Underwood Riesling Radler starts with a finished riesling base, into which grapefruity cascade hops are added, then winemaker JP Caldcleugh adds a heavy dose of crystal hops for a burst of clean citrus and green tea aromas.

“Hops are essential to the aroma and bitterness in our radler,” Caldcleugh says.“Our heavy dry-hop addition creates a strong hop presence in the aroma up front.”

The radler hit shelves in August 2017, and Union sold through its original production run quickly enough to warrant nationwide expansion this year, plus the addition of a (hops-free) strawberry wine cooler to the roster.

“I am very bullish on the premium wine cooler category and where we can go with it,” Harms deadpans.

These brands with their lighthearted irreverence lend themselves to innovative add-ons like hops—and likely find crossover appeal among the customer who’d just as readily sample a fruit beer or hard sparkling water. To that end, Jones even discovered that beer-making giant Samuel Adams adds a small quantity of Mandarin hops to its Truly Spiked & Sparkling hard seltzers.

According to a Sam Adams spokesperson, hops are in fact incorporated, so the product (made with fermented cane sugar) can be classified as beer. The “light, fruity and citrusy” flavor of Mandarin hops did play a small factor in their selection, she notes.

David L Reamer

Taming Pét-Nat

Jones faces a slightly steeper road to acceptability when it comes to Pét-Nat, mostly within the winemaking community.

This quirky, fizzy wine—dubbed by many as the next rosé—is bottled before it finishes fermenting so gets its effervescence from primary rather than secondary fermentation, yielding a fresh, almost cidery wine—in Jones’ mind, it’s ripe for dry-hopping. In his first test, which took place over two years ago, he added galaxy hop pellets just before bottling Pét-Nat nouveau from chardonnay grapes. These days he ferments the entire time on the hops—his preferred being lychee-esque Nelson—at very cold temperatures.

“That’s our only control,” he says. “We let the native yeast go off, but we keep it slowed down. Pét-Nat wines are pretty unpredictable; they’re such a living thing. The hops help keep microbial stability in the wine.”

It only takes two to 20 pounds of hops per 1,000 gallons to create said stability, along with lending acidity and tropical fruit-like juiciness to this bone-dry, quenching sparkler. The only potential contention point? It smells like a hopped farmhouse beer.

I poured it for Nathan Adams, owner of Chicago’s small-production natural wine shop Red & White and adjacent bistro Bar a Vin. Most naturally focused shops like Red & White wouldn't carry this sort of product though, because it's not considered a minimal-intervention wine.

“If I didn’t already know, I’d have a hard time discerning whether it was wine or beer,” he mused, adding that he appreciated the structure the hops provided to tame a somewhat challenging grape.

There’s a time and place to have fun with wine and push boundaries.”

Jones doesn’t always get a positive reception. “I get all kinds of looks from the natty scene,” he laughs. “I’ve been at tasting events where people next to me get worked up that I’m ruining the smell of the glasses. Then I’ll pour it for the snobbiest of sommeliers, and they don’t want to like it, but they do.”

He chalks this resistance up to lingering ceremonial association with wine drinking— “it’s still not really an everyday beverage”—and to the dominance of traditionalist winemaking that favors replicating iconic, oft-inaccessible styles.

Caldcleugh laughs in agreement. “I appreciate fine wine as much as anyone and there’s a time and place for that,” he says. “But equally there’s a time and place to have fun with wine and push boundaries. Our industry is often unwilling to change and looks suspiciously at those who do and that’s unfortunate. Why not have fun, create and see where it takes you?”

Plus, Jones says, “It tastes freaking awesome.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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