Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Anyone for Chocolate-flavoured Wine?

One of the more interesting things about wine is how each grape has its own character. The tangy passionfruit and vegetal notes of Sauvignon Blanc presents a marked contrast to the citrus and tropical fruit notes of Chardonnay. The use of oak, when carefully applied, can add rich vanilla and coconut overtones to the wine, providing complexity while supporting the fruit. Some winemakers treat winemaking like a craft, tweaking the wine here and there, ensuring that its colour, acidity, alcohol and ripeness are in balance. Others believe that the vineyard is paramount, and any adjustments in the winery strip out the natural character of the wine.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before a new way of thinking about wine emerged. It's a commercial product right? Do we need to understand the history of the wine or where it comes from to enjoy it? When we open a bottle of wine with as much thought and ceremony as we give to opening a can of Coca-Cola, it becomes just another fast-moving consumer product. And if we can flavour Coca-Cola with cherry and vanilla to make it more interesting, why can't we do the same with wine?

The concept of flavoured wine, or to use the EU term aromatised wine, has in fact been around for some time. Traces of pine resin have been found in Greek wine amphorae dating back to the thirteenth century B.C. It is known today as retsina, as important to Greece as port is to Portugal. Vermouth, a fortified wine flavoured with herbs and spices was originally promoted as a medicinal drink, but today is primarily used as a component in cocktails. The main reason to flavour wine in the past was to disguise poor quality or to improve the taste once it started to sour.

Thinking that retsina and vermouth were the two main categories of flavoured wine, I was surprised by the number of chocolate-flavoured wines I encountered when browsing through wine shops in the United States. Curiosity prompted me to buy a bottle, and I went with the one which was the most popular according to the shop assistant. It was called Chocolate Shop, and the label touts it as "Red Wine with Natural Dark Chocolate Flavours". It was attractively packaged in a traditional Bordeaux-shaped bottle with a rich dark brown label and gold lettering. The wine was duly opened during dinner at an Italian restaurant with other wine professionals a week later. While I must admit that the wine was not to my liking, others considered the wine at least drinkable. It found greater acceptance with the girls than the guys in our group. The chocolate character was pronounced on the nose, similar to a bar of Hershey's, while the palate was a combination of sugary sweetness, chocolate and raspberries. The wine has a residual sugar level of 70g/l and alcohol of 12.5%. The retail price was US$10.99.

The wine may have found only muted acceptance at that dinner, but elsewhere it is flying off the shelves. Precept Wine, the maker of Chocolate Shop, reports that 1.2 million bottles were sold last year in the US retail market. It was especially popular during Valentine's Day and Easter Sunday. The wine was launched in the UK and Australia last year, although the base wine is different from the US version. According to Wine Spectator, chocolate-flavoured wine is one of the hottest growing segments in the alcoholic beverages market.

I am of two minds regarding this development. As a consumer, I love to see new innovations and prefer that the market decide whether a product will succeed or fail. The drink lends itself to experimentation with chocolate-based desserts, or perhaps as part of a cocktail mix. As a wine professional, I feel that this marks a new low in the image of wine. With the quality of wine at an all-time high, artificially adding flavours to a product that can be rich, complex and interesting by itself is a short-cut approach and obviously profit-driven. When it is the added flavourings and not the natural fruit characters of the varietal itself that are the centre of attention, then surely much of the romanticism and allure of wine is lost. So, please call it a chocolate drink with added wine flavours and not a wine with added chocolate flavours.

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