What makes wine, wine? "A truckload of grapes," surely, would be a reasonable answer. "Hailing from a vineyard," would be another.
But there is also exists a wine for which neither of these statements is strictly true. Dreamt up by Ryan Chetiyawardana, the maverick bartender behind London's negroni-microwaving White Lyan cocktail bar, this "wine" comprises of just 20 percent grape juice and is made with fermented herbs, tea, and fruit.
Listed as "Wine, sort of" on the White Lyan menu, the unusual reds, whites, and rosés see Chetiyawardana deconstruct the flavours usually found in wine, fermenting with aroma-giving ingredients like rhubarb tea and sage to create a beverage that tastes like wine—despite containing next to no grapes.
As I sip the Guilty Pleasures Rosé, there is certainly an element of "sort of" going on in the glass. The belting taste of sweet strawberries is slightly overpowering but I can still detect that dryness so particular to wine. I happily gulp it down.
"I have a huge soft spot for the Rosé," says Chetiyawardana. "So often rosés are really bad but when you get a good one, it is an amazing drink to be able to turn to."
To make the wines, Chetiyawardana and his team start by preparing a carefully diluted base liquid containing the required flavour. Consistency is essential to the process, so controllable ingredients such as jam are used instead of real strawberries. The jam (or a substance with a similar consistency) is then mixed with fruit juice and sugar, before ingredients such as oak chips or cacao nibs are added to shape flavour. Finally, yeast is sprinkled in and the mixture kept in a temperature-controlled room to ferment. Once fermented, it's filtered and bottled—and there you have your wine.
Despite this unusual production method, Chetiyawardana's fermented beverages capture the same cozy notes of a good glass of wine (this is roughly 13 percent booze, after all). I wonder if the team had a specific taste in mind when they started their winemaking experiment.
"Each 'varietal' was carefully considered in terms of what we liked in wines and how we would best represent those flavours," says Robin Honhold, White Lyan operations manager and one of the team who worked with Chetiyawardana on the wine. "There is a fantastic opportunity here to create a desired flavour profile from scratch, something which is incredibly hard to do with traditional winemaking."
Despite deviating from centuries-old methods of viticulture, White Lyan didn't want the fermented wines to stray too far from the taste of the original drink.
"It was important that they weren't alienating, so familiar flavours were used," Honhold adds.
Having finished my rosé, I try the "Spring Break White"—Honhold's favourite.
"There are a lot of points to it that mirror my favourite glasses of wine," he says. "The acidity is subtle, it has a floral, rhubarb-y nose and the apricot lends a rich, almost creamy texture to give it a full body."
He's not wrong. While White Lyan's other wines are clear, this one looks like a cloudy apple juice and is distinctly creamy. Next, I move onto the "Whirlwind Red," which has a meatiness to it and feels layered and smokey. It's a drink Chetiyawardana tells me would also pair well with food.
"It's all about the setting," he says. "The wines have paired well incredibly with food, but they also satisfy in that place where you reach for a wine. A friend—Rhys from Happiness Forgets—even used them (and won) in a cocktail competition in lieu of a vermouth, so they're quite versatile given their complexity."
With such versatility, why has no one tried to make fermented wines before?
"There must be many reasons," Honhold considers. "Our team has a very specific but broad-ranging set of interests. The wines, and the desire to make them, have surely come to be because of a unique set of circumstances."
While Honhold admits that their fermented sort-of-wines have "ruffled a few feathers" among some winemakers, he's keen to point out that they're not attempting to replace traditional vineyards with fermenting rooms.
"I would like to note that we love wine, there is a history and tradition that we are not trying to undermine," he says. "Rather, we're trying to have some fun."
And what could be more fun than a wine that tastes like strawberries?
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2016.