“Chillable Reds”: Driving Drinkers to New Regions and Varieties

Hannah Staab

In recent years the Beaujolais-craze brought new appreciation to the category of light-bodied red wines. At the same time, the natural wine movement has continued to question the “rules” of wine with many natural wines shattering the boundaries of previously inflexible wine categories. These trends meet in the new and improved corner of your local wine shop, a section exclusively focused on juicy and quaffable reds that are best served chilled. This growing category has been dubbed “chillable reds,” and their main goal is to be enjoyed. This year, a growing number of wine lists and shops have a dedicated selection of chillable red wines, which raises the question: What is driving this rapidly growing trend? Moreover, could this trend be benefiting certain wine regions?

Amsterdam Wine Co. | Photo credit: Eric Legome

The Rise of Beaujolais

“Chillable reds” are light-bodied wines with high acid, low tannin and are generally fruit-forward. Wines made in Beaujolais embody these characteristics. Beaujolais used to live in the shadow of Burgundy, but it is now a region that has recently sprung into the spotlight. Pinot Noir had an elevated status due to its complexity and ageability, while the entirety of Beaujolais was reduced to the stereotype of simple Beaujolais Nouveau. However, an increase in quality winemaking led by low-intervention winemakers and with a movement of sommeliers vocalizing their love for this region, Beaujolais’s reputation has turned around. Steve Flynn, the owner of Amsterdam Wine Co., a wine shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, remarks that Beaujolais “got rid of its reputation as a dumpster heap and people started to look at it as Burgundy… which it is.” Chris Martorano, the wine director at Lelabar in the West Village, saw the trend coming three years ago when he noticed people started requesting more wines from Beaujolais—first just Village-level wines, then Cru Beaujolais. Now Martorano puts effort into curating the Beaujolais selection at Lelabar but claims that it is difficult to secure wines from the top producers in Beaujolais due to the high demand.

This rising popularity is now causing a spike in the prices of Beaujolais. Even though the wines of Beaujolais still offer great value for French wines, consumers are now looking elsewhere to fulfill their craving for light, fruit-forward red wines. It turns out that most classic wines do not fit in this niche, so wine shops and bars are finding wines from obscure or underappreciated grapes to fit the bill. These include Nerello Mascalese, Frappato, Grignolino, Pelaverga, País, Schiava, Marzemino, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent. The online wine shop, Parcelle, recently showcased a section called “Not Pinot Noir” that offered alternative light-bodied red wines off the beaten path. Grant Reynolds, the owner of Parcelle, wanted to show that there are “other grapes that can fulfill the need for light, non-tannic, fruity, floral, and refreshing wines.” These grape varieties may be unfamiliar to many people, but consumers are more willing than ever to try new things due to other simultaneous movements in the wine industry.

New Movements

Even though orange wines and pét-nats have received more attention, the natural wine movement has been driving the category’s growth as well. Dave Foss, the cofounder of LaLou, a natural wine-focused restaurant in Brooklyn, stated that “the natural wine movement has been instrumental in chillable red wine’s popularity.” This is often because these red wines and natural wines are one and the same. The qualities that allow a red wine to be chilled align with the characteristics of many natural red wines. Those in the natural wine world have dubbed these “glou glou” wines, which is the French equivalent of “glug glug,” referring to wines that are so light and juicy they are chuggable.

Dave Foss | Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Natural wine also indirectly benefited “chillable reds” by celebrating the adventurous wine drinker and promoting unique wines; the funkier, the better! Therefore, when people see a chilled Grignolino on a restaurant menu, they are more likely to try it than diners of the previous generations. Flynn attributes the bending boundaries of wine to the natural wine movement, with previously stringent rules of food and wine pairings such as “red wine with steak and white wine with fish” no longer relevant to most consumers. Instead, the new narrative is “drink whatever you want to drink!”  With this new attitude, people are not only more open to new varieties, but they are also actively seeking out new and obscure wine styles. Flynn caters to the exploratory wine drinker and mentions that in the chillable red wine section at Amsterdam Wine Co., they always like to present lesser-known grapes and regions and frequently rotate the wine options available in this category.

These wines are not just bending the rules; they are a flagrant divergence from what was valued most in the wine world for the past few decades. The Robert Parker era of the 90s and early 2000s rewarded full-bodied wines. Lelabar’s Martorano believes that the millennial wine drinker “associates those bigger reds with their parents,” so when they are looking for something new to try, they might avoid those full-bodied wines. Whether this was an intentional rebellion or a genuine interest in unfamiliar flavors, chillable red wines are appreciated because they are different.

A Global Pandemic

Another factor contributing to these wines’ increased demand was indoor-dining restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, restaurants can provide an escape from the sweltering NYC summers, and the air-conditioned refuge allows you to choose a wine to accompany your meal without factoring in the surrounding temperature. Eating outside in 90-degree weather does not exactly put you in the mood for a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, and the wine bars and restaurants were taking note. Martorano comments, “I always had at least one chillable red by the glass on the menu, usually something Northern Italian,” said Martorano, “but with outdoor dining, we wanted to cater to the environment. People were drinking more rosé and white wines, so we wanted to offer more chillable red wine options, and people liked it.” As we are heading into the depths of winter, there is no longer a need to fight off the heat with chilled reds. However, Martorano shared that Lelabar’s patrons are still requesting them, so he keeps them on the menu despite the fact this is usually a seasonal offering.

On the retail side, Flynn remarked that this past spring, more customers were coming in requesting red wines that were available chilled, which led them to expand their selection and devote an entire section of the store to “chillable reds.” Think about it – you are going to meet your friends outside for a drink, the only glassware you have is a portable mug. Would you reach for a full-bodied red and try to pick up the subtle flavor notes through a straw? Or would you reach for something like the chilled Christina St. Laurent, which Kaare Birin-Pederson, an Amsterdam Wine Co. employee, described to me as “like drinking a blackberry smoothie”?

Additionally, since fewer people were eating at restaurants this year, many looked to their local retail shop as a resource for wine information. Elisa Crye of Amsterdam Wine Co. mentioned that the pandemic led the customers to ask more questions about food and wine pairings since the dining restrictions meant they could no longer rely on restaurant sommeliers. Many customers would ask how to pair red wines with lighter fare such as fish or vegetarian dishes, which gave the perfect opportunity to suggest trying a wine from their chillable reds section. Additionally, the increased connection to their customers allowed them to recommend wines people have generally not tried before.

Chris Martorano | Photo credit: Hannah Staab

Where do we go from here?

After discussing the topic with several people in the wine industry, they all look to similar regions to fill their chilled red wine list, primarily Northern Italy and Austria. Dave Foss mentioned that he often looks to Burgenland, Austria when looking for chilled red wines, and Steve Flynn looks to the reds of Alto Adige such as Schiava and Marzemino. Martorano said that his first experience with a chilled red wine was a Grignolino from Piedmont, so he features that wine on his by-the-glass list each year. He was recently introduced to País, a grape commonly grown in Chile, so now he is offering that as an option as well. Finally, Grant Reynolds often looks to Sicily and Jura’s light-bodied wines for his chilled red selection. Even though none of these wines have become as ubiquitous as Beaujolais in the US, it is possible that as this trend grows, they could become household names.

These wines all deliver the bright fruit flavors that are the trademark of the category while still holding their unique character, whether from the elevation of the Dolomites or the volcanic soils of the Mt. Etna region. For example, the Roeno “La Rua” Marzemino from Alto Adige, featured at Amsterdam Wine Co., is bursting with flavors of tart strawberries, cherries, and pomegranate with hints of pepper and licorice, while the Mortellito “Calaniuru Rosso” Frappato blend from Sicily, available at Parcelle, offers flavors of juicy raspberries, strawberries and cream, and herbs, with a smoky mineral backbone.

Photo credit: Martha Stoumen Wines

Producers in California are crafting wines from grapes that are usually considered full-bodied to replicate these wines’ lighter style. Martha Stoumen’s “Post Flirtation” Red Blend is Zinfandel and Carignan, which one might assume to be a bold wine. However, it is deliciously light and fruity with flavors of fresh berries, sour cherry, flowers, and herbs. Martha Stoumen Wines describes this wine as “a fast friend, a buoyant wine that will lift your palate rather than weight it down,” which captures the core of what chilled red wines offer. This wine shows us that in addition to discovering new grapes that are naturally lighter-bodied, this trend might allow us to reframe familiar grape varieties and appreciate their lighter sides as well.

This trend has introduced wine lovers everywhere to a new category of wines to explore, and these wines are here to stay. In a complicated year, it is no surprise that people were looking to easy, enjoyable, uncomplicated wines that deliver light and fun flavors. And it appears that consumers are hooked. This movement is allowing the elegant reds of Alto Adige and the juicy, berry-forward wines of Austria to take off in wine bars and retail shops, with popular brands like Christina leading the way. With many of these regions using carbonic maceration and low-intervention winemaking practices, maybe one of them will prove to be the next Beaujolais.