In the spring of 2022, The New York Times posed a ridiculous question: Is the dirty Shirley the drink of the summer? To which I respond: absolutely not. Dirty Shirleys—which are just Shirley Temples spiked with vodka—are cloyingly sweet. And maybe this is just me, but I don’t really want to pump myself full of sugar before making the sweaty walk home in the blistering sun.
During the hottest months of the year, I want to sip on something fun and refreshing that I can drink a lot of without developing a nasty hangover that will only be intensified by my annoying insistence not to buy an air conditioning unit for my third-story apartment. I’ve already shared my passion for piquette, a wine-adjacent beverage that boasts low ABVs and spritzy, unfussy flavors. But as the coming heat waves approach and portend the serious consequences of climate change, I think it’s time for us to ask more of our drinks than just to quench our thirst: They should offer a vision for a more sustainable way forward. And it looks like fruit wines could be poised to do just that.
Anyone who’s dipped their toes into the wine world knows that grapes are a finicky fruit that require copious amounts of care and a very specific kind of climate to produce a winemaker’s intended effect. Hotter temperatures mean grapes ripen faster, lowering acid content and increasing sugars. Extreme heat can actually stunt growth. And when wildfires dominate the landscape, as is becoming the norm every summer in much of California, grapes’ sensitivity makes them vulnerable to smoke taint, which can significantly affect a wine’s flavor and aroma.
For all of these reasons and more, some wine producers are turning to fruits other than grapes to make their wines. Apples and pears, specifically, can be more resistant to some of the effects of climate change, making them a solid alternative to grapes in the wine-making sphere. (And if apple wine just sounds like cider to you, you’re right: Technically, it’s cider if it only contains apples. If it’s a blend of different fruits, it can be called a fruit wine.) And although wines made with fruits other than grapes have been less than celebrated in the past, a new generation of thoughtful winemakers is attempting to turn that reputation around.
Brutes, based out of Stockholm, bottles fruit pét-nats like Alright Alright Alright, a low-ABV cider-adjacent wine that boasts plenty of spice but still feels summery at the same time. Because of its low alcohol content, drinking a whole bottle isn’t out of the question (I don’t judge), and because of its refreshing, electric flavor, it’s hard not to. RAS Wines produces wine and vermouth made from wild blueberries picked in Maine. Yeasty, savory and ultimately super enjoyable, their Arkadia wine shows the potential of what fruit wine can be with serious care and concentration.
For now, it seems like it’s mostly the natural wine world that is focused on fruit wines, but the industry is seeing growth. Conscious consumers want to eat—and drink—local, and locally produced fruit wines can capture a sense of place even in regions where grapes may not grow well. And with the effects of climate change becoming more drastic and noticeable year after year, it won’t be long before wine drinkers will have to start questioning what’s in their glasses.
For those of us who love the strange, the new, the experimental, this is good news: Fruit wines can open us up to flavors and experiences that are only possible with the exploration of new ingredients and methods. Personally, that’s the kind of energy I’m trying to capture this summer: Find me at the nearest body of water clutching a glass of something fruity, hazy and bubbly unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. But hey, if you’d prefer to down vodka-tainted sugar water, who am I to judge?
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.