Before Jenny Lefcourt moved to France in the early ‘90s, she thought she hated wine. In this era, the point system defined what a good wine was in the U.S., and it heavily favored full-bodied, over-extracted bottles. Most wines outside of that style weren’t considered serious or worthwhile, so for those who weren’t sold on jammy wines served with a hint of pretension, the wine world wasn’t exactly enticing.

It was in the cafés of Paris where Lefcourt first tried the lighter-bodied reds of Beaujolais and the Loire Valley that she fell in love with wine. These reds, often served chilled, were approachable and easy to enjoy — a style that Lefcourt credits with changing her entire perspective on wine and prompted her to start her now wildly popular importing company, Jenny & Francois Selections.

The ease and pleasure of drinking red wines at a cooler temperature sparked similar reactions in many curious drinkers and industry pros, whether during trips to Europe or sampling imported wines in the U.S. These bottles, among many others that defied convention, were embraced by those looking to shake up the monotony of 99-point oak bombs. Importers, wine shops, and sommeliers alike started to incorporate these wines in their programs, often pointing out that they should be served chilled. Eventually the wines earned their own category on many lists and were dubbed “chillable reds.”

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Now, producers in the U.S. and around the world are replicating the regional European wines that inspired the chilled reds movement — working with different grapes, seeking out new vineyard sites, and experimenting with new winemaking methods. These inventive bottlings have expanded the category exponentially, cementing the style’s status in mainstream wine drinking culture.

The Roots of Chilled Reds

There wasn’t exactly one wine that started off the trend — although no one can deny the incredible weight Beaujolais holds in the category — but rather it was in winemaking towns throughout Europe that it first took a foothold. When industry pros recount the early days of the chilled reds wave, a few usual suspects start to appear, including Alto Adige, Italy; Dolenjska, Slovenia; and, of course, Beaujolais, France.

“I was given a wine made from the Schiava grape from a distributor, and they mentioned that it was the most widely planted grape in Alto Adige, and locals would drink it chilled in the summer. And I thought, ‘Wow. That sounds cool.’”

Evan Lewandowski of California’s Ruth Lewandowski Wines first became infatuated with chilled reds during a winemaking apprenticeship in Alto Adige. In the mountainous region in Northern Italy, the locals enjoy the native Schiava cooled down as a casual, everyday wine. “We would chill them down and wash whatever we were eating down with it,” Lewandowski says. While these wines were commonplace for his colleagues, he was stunned by their drinkability, so much so that his mentor would often ask him, “Why are you so excited about these wines?” To which Lewandowski would respond, “I’m tired of not being able to sink a bottle of wine on the patio.”

Lewandowski’s mentor supported his craving and introduced him to wines like Pineau d’Aunis and lighter styles of red Burgundy. These bottles inspired him to make a quaffable red in the U.S. Wines like his carbonic co-ferment Feints are now a staple in the category.

Schiava was also the entryway for sommelier and restaurant operator Joe Campanale, who recalls being introduced to the concept at Dell’anima, the West Village Italian restaurant he originally opened, around 2007. “I was given a wine made from the Schiava grape from a distributor, and they mentioned that it was the most widely planted grape in Alto Adige, and locals would drink it chilled in the summer. And I thought, ‘Wow. That sounds cool.’”

From then on Campanale made an effort to keep at least one chilled red on the list year-round. And while guests at his restaurants have always shown an interest in these wines, Campanale notes that he has really seen the phenomenon take off in the past few years.

At his latest endeavor, Bar Vinazo, a Spanish wine bar in Park Slope, Campanale offers an array of chillable reds from across Spain, including favorites like Luis Rodriguez Ribeiro, Guimaro Ribera Sacra Mencia, Donniene Gorronda Bizkaiko Txakolina, and Borja Perez Artifice Tinto Listan Negro from the Canary Islands. While Italy inspired Campanale to embrace the style, the ability to incorporate the category onto any themed list shows its expansion and ever-increasing diversity.

“It is always a blend of red and white indigenous grapes, and usually very low sugar and very low alcohol.”

Many credit Schiava with their love of light-bodied reds, but the majority of wine pros cite Beaujolais as the trendsetter. The region’s local Gamay grape and granitic soils lend themselves to a lighter-style wine. Winemakers would often embrace that style by implementing carbonic maceration, a method that brings a fruit-forward, juicy profile. Since the Gamay-based wines of Beaujolais and the Loire inspired Jenny Lefcourt’s career as an importer, the first thing she wanted to do when she started Jenny & Francois was to introduce the style to U.S. drinkers.

In addition to winning over Lefcourt, renowned sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr also notes that Beaujolais turned him and many others on to the chilled reds trend. Now, Parr works with Phelan Farm, in the ocean-influenced San Luis Obispo AVA, to craft lighter-bodied, cool-climate wines from Gamay, as well as other grapes commonly associated with chillable reds like Mencia, Mondeuse, Trousseau, and Poulsard.

“Gamay was always the first,” says Paula de Pano, owner of the Rocks + Acid Wine Shop in Chapel Hill, N.C. De Pano recalls seeing the trend slowly creep onto wine lists around 2016. And when she opened her own shop in 2022, she was set on always offering a chilled red by the glass. Now the options go far beyond Gamay, with a recent by-the-glass list example including the Beurer Rotgut blend of Spätburgunder, Dornfelder, and Portugieser from Germany.

Beaujolais may have taken center stage at the beginning of the trend, but there was another unsung hero of the category in its early days in Eastern Europe. The wines of Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia were far from mainstream a decade ago but Ruffian, a New York City-based natural wine bar that opened in 2016, helped make a name for them in the U.S., with a list focused almost exclusively on the region.

“People were more willing to try chilled reds than orange wines,” Campanale admits. “In the summer, with pasta with meat sauce, chilled reds were an easy sell.”

Charlotte Mirzoeff, the wine director at Forsythia who previously worked at both Ruffian and its since-shuttered sister restaurant Kindred, notes that her first experience with chilled reds was at Ruffian in 2018, when she tried a wine called Big Fred from Strekov in Slovakia — an organically farmed, non-vintage blend of two obscure, cool-climate Eastern European hybrid grapes, Dunaj and Aliberne.

Mirzoeff also mentions a specific style of lighter-bodied, low-ABV wine called Cviček from Slovenia, as an early example in the category. Daniel Lukin-Beck, the general manager of Vinum, an importer of Slovenian wines, describes Cviček wines as “an extremely popular” drink in Slovenia. “It is always a blend of red and white indigenous grapes, and usually very low sugar and very low alcohol,” he says, “resulting in a crisp, tangy, light and refreshing ‘light red/dark rosé’ expression of a wine.”

The style dates back to the Middle Ages, during some regime changes that prompted the abolition of viticulture, and led to vine decay and the production of underripe, sour wines, which were named Cviček — an old Slovenian word meaning sour.

“The funny thing is it gradually became a source of pride in the region,” Lukin-Beck says. This led producers to seek out lighter-bodied red grapes as well as blend red and white grapes to recreate the tart, drinkable style. Cviček is now a PTP-protected classification, specifically made from the Dolenjska region in Slovenia. And the regional favorite is expanding, as wine bars like Ruffian and importers like Vinum started to introduce bottles, like the playful liter bottle of Zajc Cviček, to the U.S.

The Rise of Chilled Reds in the U.S.

Drinking red wines at cooler temperatures was clearly standard practice in many European towns, but prior to the last decade or so the concept was totally foreign to U.S. drinkers.

“The U.S. is young in its wine culture, really young,” Lefcourt says. “Not that there wasn’t already plenty of wine in California, but wine as an everyday drink, as something accessible and not intimidating, is so recent.” Comparatively, wine has been part of mainstream culture in Europe forever, as Lefcourt recalls seeing people at truck stops in France drinking chilled reds in water glasses. “That is just basic French culture.”

“I do hope people will see beyond chilled red as a fixed category and more as a technique to maximize enjoyment of any wine.”

Chilled reds represented a rebellion against the intense, complex style much of the U.S. revered. Open-minded drinkers could instead glug down bottles purely for pleasure, without facing pretension or having to navigate texturally challenging tannins.

Among all the “rules” the natural wine movement broke, perhaps this particular phenomenon caught on so quickly because it required no explanation. Skin-contact wines and pét-nats are named after complex winemaking methods. But a chilled red? That just sounds like a refreshing way to enjoy wine. “People were more willing to try chilled reds than orange wines,” Campanale admits. “In the summer, with pasta with meat sauce, chilled reds were an easy sell.”

It’s more than this, though. The techniques employed by natural wine producers intrinsically lead to lighter red wines. Lefcourt says wines that are typically overly tannic and only meant for aging can be delicious young when made with low-extraction methods.

Another consideration is heat. Campanale notes that the trend seemed to crescendo during and immediately after the pandemic, attributing it to drinkers needing something more refreshing for outdoor dining. De Pano also cites the North Carolina climate as the reason many of her guests gravitate toward Rocks + Acid’s chilled red by-the-glass offerings. She also notes that her rosé sales are slowing in favor of chilled reds. While many still have the misconception that rosés are sweet, guests are open to trying something familiar that just has a chill on it.

The Future of Chilled Reds

Following the success of European imports, producers in the U.S. are hopping onto the trend. New-wave producers in California — ironically, the birthplace of the overly oaked fruit bomb — weren’t as concerned with points systems and instead joined the natural wine train. They set out to craft wines with less tannin and extraction, and more bright fruit flavor and crisp acidity.

Producers like Ruth Lewandowski, Martha Stoumen, Arnot-Roberts, Jolie-Laide, Two Shepherds, Broc Cellars, Stolpman Vineyards, and Iruai led the way with intriguing wines that practically begged to be chilled. Jenny & Francois now also works with several U.S. producers, one of which, Las Jaras, has a bottling called “Glou Glou” for its easy-to-drink nature, which Lefcourt says is “so hard to imagine existing 15 years ago.”

Since these producers weren’t bound to appellation laws, or even some form of local tradition, they started experimenting with unheard of blends, co-ferments, and winemaking methods. With more producers joining the bandwagon, the category continues to grow.

Billy Smith, assistant wine director at New York’s The Four Horsemen and chief wine officer of natural wine site The Waves, has witnessed the evolution first hand. When asked if chilling reds is just a fad, he says, “I certainly hope not.”

Many wine pros agree that the trend has staying power, but its expansion could lead to a loss of nuance in conversations and even confusion surrounding the term.

“Nowadays [Beaujolais] are much more rich and opulent.”

“I do hope people will see beyond chilled red as a fixed category and more as a technique to maximize enjoyment of any wine,” Smith says. “So many bottles could use a little zhuzhing up in the temperature department — whether you’re letting a white wine warm up a bit to bring out fruit and aromatics or popping a red into the fridge for 30 minutes to freshen it up.”

Another major obstacle chillable reds face is climate change. Beaujolais, the wine that prompted so many to fall in love with the serving method in the first place, isn’t the same wine it was even five years ago. When Rajat Parr started drinking and serving Beaujolais, the bottles were normally around 11 percent alcohol, which works perfectly with a chill. “Nowadays they are much more rich and opulent,” he says. Recent vintages are reaching, and even surpassing, 14 percent alcohol, due to the increasing temperatures of the region.

This has drawn producers like Parr to craft lighter-bodied expressions of grapes like Gamay in cool areas like the coastal San Luis Obisbo AVA. As such, it might be the case that the regions that produce our favorite chillable reds will shift. Worst-case scenario, the style might eventually be impossible to produce.

After experiencing the cold, refreshing, juicy taste of a gluggable red, it’s hard to imagine giving that up.

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