If you’ve traveled to Wölffer Estate Vineyard on Long Island, you might have seen winemaker Roman Roth walking around with a full glass of pale golden liquid in his hand. As he makes his way through the property, Roth likes to hold the stem and raise the vessel to guests — especially now that it has become safer for them to visit, something worthy of a toast. What you might not know, though, is that his glass usually contains a mixture of water and verjus, not chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

“It’s lovely to have something sour, refreshing and nonalcoholic during the day,” he says. At Wölffer Kitchen Amagansett, you can order a leveled-up version of Roth’s drink: The Free Spirit cocktail is a mixture of sparkling water, verjus, blueberries and raspberries on ice, garnished with a basil leaf.

Verjus, the juice of unripened wine grapes (vert jus is French for “green juice”), is a treasure made from what some might consider to be trash. Grapes can struggle to develop the fully ripened, concentrated flavors required for winemaking if there are too many of them on the vine, fighting for sun exposure. So, just before veraison, a stage during which grapes start to change color and sugars accumulate, growers assess the crop load and remove clusters to give the remaining fruit a chance at maturity. Some years, Roth says, he has cut 30 percent of his crop. Why let it rot on the ground when it can be turned into something that celebrates its youth?

Although it has been around since the medieval era, verjus, sometimes called verjuice, still isn’t a household word. But those who have tasted the bright, crisp liquid — mainly chefs — make salad dressings with it or finish a braise with a couple dashes, giving the rich, meaty stew a light, subtle lift impossible with vinegar.

Over the past few years, though, more and more bartenders have been getting turned on to verjus, especially for use in alcohol-free cocktails.

“Verjus has that moreish quality to it,” says Adam Chase, bar manager at Verdigris outside Kansas City, Kan. “You want to keep going and going.” That’s how acid works: More than any of the other four basic tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, umami), sour induces saliva production. Acid is literally mouthwatering — and it makes you want more of it.

The Verjus Spritz, which Chase developed when he was at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room in Kansas City, was born out of necessity, he says. In 2018, he didn’t have access to many good nonalcoholic sparkling wines, but he felt that teetotalers deserved something more celebratory than soda water. “The Verjus Spritz became our nonalcoholic option for those wanting to participate in a champagne toast for special occasions.”

Julia Momosé, partner and creative director at Kumiko in Chicago, likes that she can use a higher volume of verjus in a drink than she could with a harsher acid. “Two ounces of lemon juice, and you’re going to have lemonade, basically,” she says. “But two ounces of verjus, maybe with an infusion and a splash of tonic, drinks like a stunning aperitif.” Momosé says verjus’s softer acidity also helps keep her from needing to add sugar. Unlike lemon juice, verjus is already balanced.

Chase and Momosé both like a brand called Fusion, which former chef Jim Neal has been making in Napa Valley since 1993 — but it wasn’t until Wolfgang Puck asked him to make a red verjus that he knew such a version existed. “Figure out how to do it,” Puck said. Gulp.

Most grapes picked young produce white juice; color comes from the skins, which, in the case of red grapes, start to turn at veraison. (The secret ingredient in Roth’s single-serve, ready-to-drink sparkling Petite Rosé Verjus? Organic sweet purple potato extract.) After some research, Neal discovered grape varietals that produce dark purple juice. He tinted his white verjus with a dose, and boom: verjus rouge.

The flavor difference is minimal, he says. “Some of the red grapes are more vegetal, aroma-wise, and chardonnay can be kind of grassy, but at that low level of ripeness … there's not a lot of sensory difference.” Others would argue that the grape varietals, how they’re grown and the time of harvest all affect the flavor, and that red verjus is markedly richer and more floral.

Either way, it’s the ruby glow Momosé is after. “It's a color that's hard to work into nonalcoholic drinks sometimes,” she says. “The red is striking: It’s beautifully bright and has such clarity to it.”

Verjus has its place in alcoholic drinks, too. Momosé’s forthcoming book, “The Way of the Cocktail,” features a recipe that combines blanco tequila, sotol, verjus blanc, apricot eau-de-vie, pamplemousse rose liqueur and fino sherry. Meanwhile, writer Julia Sherman and natural winemaker Martha Stoumen launched JusJus, a low-alcohol sparkling verjus, in 2019. But verjus is a key player for the alcohol-free bartender. “Mocktails” have long suffered from a bad reputation of being too sweet, and they benefit from an ingredient more elegant than Concord grape juice.

Makers of nonalcoholic spirits and wines — a beverage category that's growing as more consumers, especially millennials, look to moderate their alcohol intake — are catching on.

Verjus “has that winelike acidity and a little bit of the green apple kind of acidity,” says Devin Campbell, head of beverage development at Toronto’s Acid League. Campbell uses verjus in some of the company’s Wine Proxies. Instead of dealcoholizing wine, Campbell and his team build the nonalcoholic beverages from the ground up, using juices, teas and spices. “Verjus is also lean, so it’s a great option for using in a beverage that you don’t want to be overly sweet, but you want it to have this electric line of acid running through it.”

Christian Stray-Jansen is bottling three flavors of what he calls Ambijus in Oslo. The white wine-inspired product contains sea buckthorn, gooseberries, chamomile tea, sea salt, Cascade hops and, you guessed it, verjus.

In addition to acidity, the appeal of verjus is that “it also adds viscosity and body,” says Aaron Trotman, founder of NON, a line of haute alcohol-free beverages produced in Melbourne. “But it's expensive, and a lot of winemakers don't make it.”

You’d think every winemaker would. Turning waste into profit: What’s not to love? First, it’s a lot of work at a time when the staff tends to take a much-needed rest before the harvest, and many wineries are busy bottling to free their tanks for the new vintage. Secondly, verjus requires speed and a sterile environment, lest it ferment. It’s a challenging process that can be stressful, especially because it’s not taught at winemaking schools.

What about growers? Surely more of them have incentive to use every part of their crop. Well, says Deborah Cahn, owner of Navarro Vineyards, “picking grapes and trucking them to a winery for crushing has costs, and making verjus may not pencil out if you are just a grower being paid by the ton. Purchasing wineries will pay much more for fully ripe grapes.” Navarro makes about 300 cases of verjus a year.

Rachel Thomson of Minus 8 in Niagara, Canada, makes red verjus from ice wine grapes, but as at Navarro, it’s a small production. “Not even 1,000 cases a year,” she says, which sell out — and then some.

“We’ve had so many inquiries lately from beverage developers who want a high volume of verjus,” which Minus 8 isn’t equipped to supply, Thomson says. Five years ago, she would receive emails almost exclusively from chefs and food writers. That’s no longer the case. These days, Minus 8 hears regularly from companies around the world looking to purchase verjus for drinks. “Just this morning, I got another inquiry from a vineyard in Lebanon, seeking consultation on their new verjus product.”

Verjus fit for drinking

Though the acid is tamer than that of vinegar, you still don’t want to drink verjus straight. Try mixing it with sparkling water, or in the Verjus Spritz. Once opened, store your bottle in the fridge and use it within two to three months. Here’s where to buy six bottles worth trying:

Verjus Spritz

Many alcohol-free cocktails require significant work in the kitchen, but all this drink asks is that you open three bottles and pour their contents into a stemmed glass in equal parts. Verjus, tonic water, soda water, boom! Spritz. Serve it with potato chips and olives, sit outside with a friend, and you've got summer aperitif hour.

Where to Buy: Verjus is available from gourmet food and beverage stores, and online.


Ingredients

  • 2 ounces white verjus
  • 2 ounces soda water
  • 2 ounces tonic water
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish

Step 1

Combine the verjus, soda water and tonic water in a wine or spritz glass filled with ice. Garnish with the lemon twist.

Batch for 6: Combine 1 1/2 cups each of the verjus, soda water and tonic water in a pitcher filled with ice. Divide among 6 wine glasses and garnish each with a lemon twist.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (one 6-ounce drink)

Calories: 49; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 30 mg; Carbohydrates: 13 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 9 g; Protein: 0 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


From Adam Chase of the Corvino Supper Club in Kansas City, from “Good Drinks” by Julia Bainbridge (Ten Speed Press, 2020).

Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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