Even at a time when we chase wine trends like children in pursuit of the next bright, shiny toy, the rise of canned wine happened fast. Just a few years ago, many in the industry still considered the phenomenon a passing fad at best. But judging from the ever-growing assortment of high-quality cans colonizing store shelves, the only surprising thing about the category today is how diverse it has become.
So, how did we get here? By most accounts, that story begins in 2004, the year Francis Ford Coppola introduced the Sofia Mini, a single-serve sparkler (complete with kitschy adhesive straw) that helped initiate the mass-market model that would characterize the space for the next decade. It wasn’t until the 2010s, with the arrival of a handful of early adopters—notably, Union Wine Company’s Underwood Cellars, first launched in 2013, along with projects such as the Ryme Cellars–affiliated Nomikai and Thomas Pastuszak’s Vinny—that the notion of premium canned wine started to gain traction.
The success of those early efforts, however, couldn’t have predicted the deluge of projects that has emerged over the past few years. Coinciding with the rise of natural wine, the category has exploded into a full spectrum of styles that pull from all pages of wine’s postmodern playbook. Faced with this excess of choice, consumers are in a familiar predicament: namely, how to single out the examples worth drinking versus those that exist merely to cash in on a trend.
On a fittingly warm July morning in New York City, I was joined in this effort by Talia Baiocchi, PUNCH’s editor in chief; Eliza Christen, wine director at Lilia and Misi; Zwann Grays, wine director at Olmsted and Maison Yaki; and Miguel de Leon, wine director at Pinch Chinese. Together we tasted through more than 40 wines, from pét-nat to piquette, to come up with a list of at least five wines we’d be happy to drink any day of the week. We had a tough time keeping it to 10.
For a group of wines presumably not built for contemplation, these selections generated a whole lot of philosophical discussion. Throughout our tasting, we kept returning to one fundamental question: Now that producers are canning wines of every imaginable grape and style, what do we want a canned wine to be?
On one level, the answer appears straightforward. Christen summed it up best: “If I’m drinking something out of a can, I want it to be fresh.” Regardless of color or style, the format clearly favors the sort of vibrant, fashionably thirst-quenching wines that take well to a chill, avoid excess alcohol or extraction, and, above all, overdeliver on in-your-face freshness.
With this basic principle established, however, other questions soon followed. For one, why can a wine? It wasn’t enough, we determined, for any individual example to be objectively good wine; it needed to justify its packaging—especially considering the minimal difference in per-volume cost between a 375ml can and a standard-size glass bottle. “A big question for me is the intention of how these wines should be consumed,” de Leon said. “Are they supposed to be crushed on the spot or offer something a bit more complex and interesting that you’d treat in the same way as a serious bottle of wine?”
Of course, there’s no one right way to thread that conceptual needle. But each wine that made our final cut succeeded not only as a high-quality wine, but specifically as a high-quality canned wine. In fact, we disqualified several perfectly respectable entries simply because they failed to convince us of their logic in that context. This particularly applied to the reds in our flight, some of which tasted awkwardly clamped down or muted. As Grays pointed out: “A mouthful of tannins is not what I want from a canned red.”
The packaging presented other potential drawbacks as well. Given the format’s susceptibility to heat damage, securing the freshest possible can is key. Unfortunately, in the absence of a vintage or canning date printed on the label, this becomes difficult to guarantee. Several wines that should have placed didn’t make the cut because they tasted “cooked” or prematurely oxidized.
In the end, we were rewarded with a list that proves how thoughtful and inclusive the genre has grown. Different from one another as they may be, it’s worth noting that every wine listed below delivered enough depth and substance to hold its own over the course of a meal, occupying some version of that sweet spot on the Venn diagram between complexity and crushability that, for us, symbolizes canned wine’s platonic ideal. So, without any further ado, here are the cans that deserve a spot in your cooler this summer.