The next time you’re making a selection at the wine store, think of that old saying about having your cake and eating it too. Or your strawberries, mint, mangoes, caramel or kiwis—just about any sweet flavouring imaginable. Even Coke. Yep, a French winemaker launched a cola-infused red wine last summer. No doubt bubble-gum sauvignon blanc will be the next cool thing. And while some purists are appalled at this adulteration of wine, others argue that the roots of the trend are as old as wine itself.
John Szabo, a wine journalist and top Canadian sommelier, says, “You go back to Roman times and they frequently added honey and herbs and spices to make the wines palatable. The Greeks used pine resin.” Niagara winemaker Charles Baker points to the age-old traditions of kir or vermouth—both examples of what he calls “people adapting to circumstances.”
Chef and co-owner Martin Kouprie of Pangaea restaurant in Toronto puts himself “in the appalled camp, because usually anything flavoured is an attempt to cover up flaws. You’re not going to take a great wine and flavour it. You’re going to take a really poor wine and flavour it.”
What’s worse, says Kouprie, whose 600-plus wine cellar has won awards from the likes of the Wine Spectator, is a distortion of the health benefits of consuming wine in moderation. “You’re dumping a bunch of sugar in it and it becomes less healthful, maybe even detrimental to your health over time.” Drinking a glass of something like the cola wine, Rouge Sucette, which is made with 75 per cent red-wine grapes with added sugars and an essence of cola, brings to mind “a nice residual hangover.”
Yet flavoured wines seem here to stay. The LCBO, Ontario’s government wine agency and one of the world’s biggest buyers of wine, reports that flavoured wines have proven a steady draw for the past five years. In that time, the list of offerings has more than doubled, from 15 to 32, and today includes a Canadian raspberry zinfandel, assorted tropical chardonnays, sangria, blackberry merlots and the ridiculously named Apple Berrylicious. And the category remains consistent in revenues, even as a drop in the bucket of the agency’s overall wine sales. (From April 1, 2013, to Feb. 20, 2014, wine brought in $1.5 billion in sales while the flavoured category came in at $26.7 million.) Still, says media relations coordinator Heather MacGregor, “The customer who likes it, they continue to like it.”
One of the biggest hits is wine made with chocolate. There are dozens of these sweet beverages, from the popular Chocolate Shop, a red wine blend with natural dark chocolate, to a concoction called Cocoa di Vine, made with chocolate cream from Wisconsin and an Argentinian white blend.
Chocolatier David Castellan of the lauded Soma Chocolate in Toronto is familiar with the connection people draw between chocolate and wine. “If you’re really into wine and tasting wine, then it’s not a big stretch to be into chocolate and tasting chocolate.” He has experimented with his own kind of union, working with Stratus Vineyards of Niagara to make a chocolate that has notes of wine by fermenting cocoa nibs in an old wine barrel. “It’s an elegant chocolate with top notes of this wine sediment,” he says. But chocolate in wine? “It would never occur to me.”
Szabo sees the emerging market of flavoured wines as an adjunct to the wine world. “As far as I’m concerned, the broader the array or notion of what wine is is a positive thing. I think, in fact, the traditional wine world is a little too focused on a handful of grapes and styles that are classics. We’re seeing that being bust open now.”
And if we’re condescending about this new category, Szabo thinks we should lighten up. He sees the trend as “moving away from the more staid view of wine that our parents’ generation held” and applauds “this younger generation that doesn’t carry the baggage of the pretentious wine world.” Szabo says he has tasted hundreds of traditional flavoured wines, highlighting the Italian Barolo Chinato, a refined and rare red made with a selection of herbs. But he’s had only one encounter with the newer creations: It was a strawberry white from Estonia called Fresita. His qualified review? “It tasted like fruit juice.”