What is the point of replica wines?

Like perfume makers that create copies of famous scents, a new group of people are copying well known wines. Robert Joseph considers the phenomenon.

Photo by Joost Crop on Unsplash
Photo by Joost Crop on Unsplash

Buddy Holly is talking to John Lennon; Prince and Freddie Mercury are deep in conversation with Judy Garland; and on the other side of the room a line of Elvises are waiting to audition. We are, of course, in the world of the ‘tribute’ artists and bands who, across the globe, give grateful audiences experiences they could never otherwise enjoy. Some are naturally more gifted than others and some put more effort into creating a performance that does justice to the original artist, but they are all part of a well-established corner of the entertainment industry.

The perfume sector has long had its own tribute acts, in the shape of scents that mimic the big brands. Divain, an online leader in this field offers over 400, whose labels simply bear a number that relates to the particular perfume it seeks to replicate. Another, called Eden, makes vegan scents and makes a ‘Number 5’ which ‘stunned’ Jess Denham of the Independent newspaper by how closely it resembled the aromas found in the Chanel original.

Setting aside the appeal of Eden’s products to people who prefer no civets, beavers or whales to have been involved in the way they smell, the main attraction of these ‘alternative aromas’ is their price, which cost a fraction of the originals.

The bargains on offer from Replica Wines, a young company based in Colorado, are quite similar. Buyers of its $20.00 Retrofit can get four bottles for the price of one bottle of Far Niente, the Napa wine on which it is based.

The theory behind Replica is very similar to the one that drives companies like Divain and Eden: run a detailed analysis of the chemical components of the liquid and attempt to assemble a similar set through careful blending.

So far, so straightforward; this, after all is what supermarkets ask suppliers to do every day when giving the specifications for their private label wines – though the producers usually have to rely on their tasting skills rather than the sophisticated equipment used by Replica.

Where Replica is more controversial is – based on the description of its methods in a 2018 Wired article – in the use of additives such as malic acid and oak essence which would not be permitted under EU legislation. This is the precisely the kind of flavour chemistry that allows the natural wine movement to say “I told you so”.

But what if Replica were able to create their copies without this kind of tinkering? What if the blenders were reaching for the acid and the essence because they were responding to a request to produce a copy in a couple of months using wine that was available on the bulk market? With a little forward planning, it would be possible to set aside some wine that does not go through malolactic fermentation and a few barrels of more intensely oaked Chardonnay with which to make the blend.

Of course the final product would still fall a long way short of complying with the rules – such as they are – for ‘natural’ wine, and it certainly wouldn’t reflect any particular terroir, but this might not be of much import to its target customers.

On the other hand, it would unashamedly be a copy. As the UK-based chef Michel Roux Jr asked in an article in the Times newspaper, “Why not just produce a decent wine, a good wine, and sell it for what it is? Rather than try to emulate or copy something else and knock it out cheaper. What’s the point?” Roux likened the Replica wine to a knock-off Rolex watch to be found in a Hong Kong street market, but that’s not really fair. Like the other fakes on offer from those stalls, the ‘Rolexes’ are illegally using the name and logo of a world-famous brand. Surely a far closer parallel would be with the diver’s watches from well-known manufacturers like Seiko, whose design clearly ‘takes its cue’ from the Rolex Submariner. Or with the high street clothes retailers that regularly create garments ‘inspired by’ the ones to be seen on couturier catwalks.

Occasionally, of course, the cheaper efforts from chains like Zara prove to be more appealing; and the same can, it seems, apply to wine. When Roux was given the Retrofit and Far Niente to taste blind by the Times, he preferred the former wine - as did a couple of sommeliers from top London restaurants and Jane MacQuitty, the newspaper’s wine columnist.

Surely, by any logical standards, the decision by countless producers to make wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot outside Bordeaux or Chardonnay and Pinot Noir outside Champagne and Burgundy also constitutes at least a certain measure of ‘copying’. And the failure by the French tasters in the 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’ to spot the Californian challengers suggests that, like those tribute bands, the copiers can sometimes do a pretty good job.

Robert Joseph




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