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.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

A Left Vs. Right Bank Tasting (but not where you’d think)

Traditional Old World wine region? Check. Produces high quality, long lived wines? Check. Historically blends different varietals? Check. Of all the wine regions in the world, perhaps none match the ethos of Bordeaux quite as much as Rioja. When phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France in the late 19th century, it was to northern Spain that many Bordeaux winemakers and merchants turned to. The winemaking industry in Rioja boomed and it was during this period that Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (The Northern Spanish Wine Company) was founded. Today, it is more commonly known by its acronym CVNE (pronounced “ku-nay”).
The company was established in 1879 by two brothers from the Real de Asúa family and it is still controlled by its direct descendants. It now consists of three wineries; the original Cune winery, and two newer wineries called Viña Real and Contino. The similarity between Cune (the winery) and CVNE (the company) is due to an early misspelling that eventually entered the lexicon. Cune is located in the sub-region of Rioja Alta while the other two are located in Rioja Alavesa. Just as in Bordeaux, a river divides the two sub-regions and there are differences in soil types between the two areas. Rioja Alavesa, located on the north and right side of the river has calcareous and clay soils while Rioja Alta on the left bank has clay with a high proportion of iron, lending a reddish colour to the soil. Both areas share a climate that is influenced by the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans.

Oscar assessing the wine

Oscar Urrutia, Key Markets Director for CVNE was in Singapore on the 7th of March to hold a vertical  tasting of Cune Imperial Gran Reserva and Viña Real Gran Reserva. Both are the flagship wines of their respective wineries, offering a rare comparison of wines from Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa. The wines were both launched in the 1920s and represent old-school Rioja at its best; long barrel aging, moderate alcohol levels and very fine tannins. The Imperial Gran Reserva is made from a blend of 85% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo and 10% Graciano while the Viña Real Gran Reserva has 95% Tempranillo and 5% Graciano. Mazuelo (otherwise known as Carignan), provides colour to the blend while Graciano contributes aromatic character.  
The tasting was notable in that it featured wines from very old vintages, going all the way back to 1968. In fact, the youngest wine that we tasted was 24 years old from 1988. Few Bordeaux wineries would have the stocks to conduct such an extensive tasting, but mature Rioja has for now escaped the attention of investment bankers and wine collectors. They represent excellent value; at a Christie’s auction last September four bottles of the 1951 Imperial Gran Reserva went for just £600. By comparison, the 2009 vintage of Château Latour is currently trading at £1000 according to Liv-Ex. That’s per bottle by the way.
Given their age, I would have expected the wines to have dried-out fruit with tertiary characters of game and leather, but instead I found wines with vibrancy, consistent quality and rich colour, a testament to Tempranillo’s ability to age magnificently. CVNE has the benefit of sourcing fruit from low yielding, old vines and employs meticulous hand-harvesting methods. “You cannot make quality wines if you do not have quality grapes,” expounds Oscar. The younger wines we tasted exhibited black fruits, underpinned with charred, toasted oak that evolved gracefully to sweet red fruits, picking up spicy notes and a savoury edge. The Viña Real Gran Reservas were slightly more aromatic and approachable than their counterparts across the river. Perhaps to underline this difference the bottles are Burgundy-shaped while the Imperial Gran Reservas are Bordeaux-shaped.
While the modern style of Rioja may be all the rage right now, the pendulum is bound to swing back eventually. When it does, wine aficionados will discover wines with a winning price to quality ratio that challenge the greatest French reds in terms of longevity. A good bottle of Rioja, slowly maturing to perfection, should be an essential component of every wine lover’s collection.
Tasting notes (all the wines tasted were poured from bottle (i.e. not decanted) to preserve their fragile aromas and flavours):
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1988 – A very good vintage as rated by CVNE. Some chunky sediment in the glass. Clean, pronounced intensity nose with bacon fat and charred wood. Savoury, slightly metallic attack with bright acids and clean black cherry with toast and forest floor. A long, fruit-packed finish.
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1978 – Rated as a very good vintage. Slight hints of smoke and toasted oak on the nose. Still very fresh and structured, with fine tannins and a long finish.
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1976 – Rated as a very good vintage. Perfumed aromatics, slightly dusty. Has an interesting Burgundian delicateness. Attractive red fruit profile, complex with a touch of floral notes on the palate. A very elegant wine.
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1973 – Rated as a very good vintage. Floral, raspberry and strawberry aromas. Fresh acids, with leather and gamey notes on the palate. Displayed more tertiary character here than clean primary fruits.
CVNE Viña Real Gran Reserva 1968 – Rated as an excellent vintage. Medium intensity nose with lifted floral aromatics and spice. Elegant and smooth on the palate, with red fruits and a firm backbone. A wine at its pinnacle.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1988 – Rated as a very good vintage. Milk chocolate on the nose. Classic Tempranillo character on the palate, with spice on the finish. Beautifully balanced.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1987 – Rated as a good vintage. Slightly dusty and chalky on the nose, a touch volatile. Palate displays red berries, with a full texture and long ripe finish. A forward wine that still packs a punch.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1979 – Rated as an average vintage. CVNE made this wine to commemorate its 100th anniversary. Although not as complex as some of the other vintages, I found this wine to be quite approachable, with soft tannins, juicy fruit and sweet red berries. Moderator Ch’ng Poh Tiong commented that “A great winemaker shows success in adversity” and I could not agree more. This was a delicious, elegant wine.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1976 – Rather shy nose with smoky hints. Oak still evident on the palate, with red cherries. A long finish. Fresh and still very vibrant.
CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1968 – Light intensity nose of red fruits and warm spices. Light bodied, with integrated, barely perceptible tannins. Sweet, savoury red fruit with a hint of coffee. Compared with the Viña Real Gran Reserva from the same year this wine seems to have evolved faster.

The Straits Wine Company is the Singapore distributor for CVNE.