At the most recent Mundus Vini wine competition in Germany, one panel of international judges was surprised to find glasses of blue wine being set before them.
It was part of research for this article on the blue wine phenomenon, which seems to have exploded out of nowhere. Bright blue wine-based drinks are turning up everywhere, from media reports of new launches, to Instagram pictures of smiling bar patrons raising a blue glass or two. Where have all these drinks come from – and why do so many of them hail from Spain?
True blue is a rare colour in nature, so humans lack what’s known as an ‘appetite response’ to it. In other words, not only do humans not start to salivate when presented with blue foods, but there is some evidence that the appetite actually drops — which is why dieters are advised to serve their food on blue plates. And, maybe, why Blue Curaçao is often the unloved liqueur at the back of the cupboard.
In any case, there have been few blue foods on the market until now, because of a lack of food-grade dyes. In the past, food manufacturers had the choice of indigo, which imparts an alarming electric blue colour, or synthetic, petroleum-derived dyes.
Then two things happened.
First, chemists recently discovered how to extract the natural blue colour from algae and fruit, to the delight of bakers and confectioners everywhere. Blue foods and drinks have popped up everywhere; Gonzalez Byass’s London No.1 Blue Gin, which was launched in 2014, for example, is coloured with Spirulina. As blue is a colour that does particularly well on Instagram, blue foods have spread.
Instagrammers have also been responsible for the spread of the butterfly pea flower, a native of Asia that’s long been used in traditional teas and dyes. It has a chemical quirk: when an acid such as lemon juice is added to a butterfly pea flower drink, the colour changes from blue to deep purple. Not surprisingly, bar tenders were quick to see its potential, and blue cocktails have spread. In other words, blue drinks were already gaining traction, when the first blue wine drinks began to appear.
The Blues brothers
A group of six Spaniards, all aged in their 20s, decided it was time to cast wine down from its pedestal, by creating an ‘anti-wine’. “Wine is very linked to culture,” says co-founder Aritz López. “They have been making it for centuries, so it’s a very old-fashioned industry. They follow the same rules about how you drink it.” For his generation, he said, “It was a nonsense to be told what to do or to like, to follow rules that are centuries old.” But the team wasn’t sure how to proceed with their icon smashing, until one of them read the business book Blue Ocean Strategy (2005), which argues that there are red oceans, which are the known market spaces, coloured red because of cut-throat competition. Blue oceans, on the other hand, are open spaces, “where, thanks to creativity and innovation, everyone could be free”.
The solution was obvious — make a wine that’s literally blue.
López says it took two and a half years of research and development to develop the blue colour. “We discovered we could add organic pigments, found in red grape skins.” They also added indigo and 1% grape must, to make the beverage even bluer and sweeter.
The resulting drink, Gïk, created a storm of outrage when it launched in 2015 — which thrilled López and the team. “We loved it,” he said, especially when sales rose to 100,000 bottles in the first year.
Not everything went their way. Under EU law, there is no such category as ‘blue wine’ and so Spanish authorities forced them to stop calling Gik ‘wine’. López sounds completely unconcerned. “This doesn’t affect us outside the European Union, or in the US.”
Around the same time, the three founders of Bodegas Santa Margarita in Albacete, Spain, were sitting on a balcony drinking gin, when one of them remarked that blue gin was now a thing. They also hit on the idea of a blue wine drink. “The original company is a nursery with lots of different varieties of grapes, so last year they decided to experiment with lots of grapes and ingredients,” says export manager Rowdy Lohmuller. He said they eventually chose the Tintorera variety [Garnacha Tintorero, or Alicante Bouschet], because “it has lots of pigments”. They then used this pigment in a Chardonnay, which they called Pasion Blue Chardonnay. “It was first launched in the Netherlands,” he says. “Sales went through the roof – in the first three months, we sold over 400,000 bottles.” Now the drink is sold in multiple countries, and the range includes other colours, from orange to gold, plus a sparkling blue. The blue is the most popular, says Lohmuller. He thinks the success may be because “Millennials are fed up with the classic wine industry, where if you taste a wine it’s complicated”. Also, he says, people just want something different.
Lohmuller also thinks Spain was the launch pad for blue wines because, “We’ve been selling wine for dirt prices,” he says, suggesting that a totally different product is a way for Spanish producers to create a cash cow untarnished by Spanish wine’s cheap image. Also, he says, the Spanish are “not as conservative as the rest of the world. The Spanish are the masters of creating new things.”
Other companies experimenting with blue wine drinks also report rocketing sales. Bruno Rebelo de Sousa, export area manager for Aliança in Portugal, says their blue Casal Mendes product sold 200,000 bottles in the first two months upon its 2016 domestic release. “It was crazy,” he says. “Our production wasn’t prepared for it at all.” He thinks the reason it did so well is that “the colour reaches other parts of the market” where conventional wine doesn’t go. De Sousa adds that a big company also wanted it for their events, because the blue matched their branding. And then the emails started, coming from overseas distributors wanting to buy it.
As a result, Aliança, whose group produces 90m bottles, created a social media campaign on Facebook and Instagram, which eventually reached 1.8m people. De Sousa still sounds bemused by the phenomenon, which clearly took the company itself by surprise. But he says that when he was in Tokyo earlier this year, he saw an entire wall of coloured wines in a major department store, so the trend is real.
As news of the new blue wine spread, others were quick to see the opportunity, including the Arbery brothers from the UK. “We aren’t wine producers,” admits David Arbery, whose company produces Skyfall, a premium cava sold in the UK. “It was available in Barcelona and Madrid, so we decided to bring it to the UK, rebrand it and give it a more upmarket feel.” Chris and David Arbery worked with noted design agency Amphora to give it a luxury packaging. “It’s a Gran Reserva and everything about the production is artisanal, hand produced, hand turned and hand labelled.” He won’t reveal how the colour is created, saying it’s a trade secret.
As for his own background, Arbery says he comes from financial services and notes that blue is a colour often used by banks because “it gives a feeling of credibility and trust,” so he envisages Skyfall being served both at weddings and corporate functions. What makes Skyfall different is that it’s priced at an eye-watering £39.95 ($52.80), which pushes it firmly into luxury territory. Arbery says the wine has been “a resounding success” though he also says the best way to get hold of it at this time is to order it from the website.
And that’s not the half of it. There is also a Prosecco-based blue drink, a Provence-sourced blue sparkling, and the blueberry flavoured ‘Blanc de Bleu’ from Bronco Wines, intended for the US wedding market. Where will it end?
If the experience of the Dutch market is any guide, it will end abruptly. After tasting the wine at Mundus Vini, Dutch judge Paul Robert Blom remarked, “Last year you could find blue wines all over Holland. Then they disappeared into the blue.”
How do they taste?
Pasion Blue Chardonnay Blue Wine and Green Wine
Even though I knew the colour was affecting my perception, I couldn’t shake the impression that the blue drink smelled of confectionary, and the green one smelled of methoxypyrazines. They were clean and well made, but the colouring affected me badly, because the blue beverage was the exact same colour as my washing up liquid. I found myself unable to continue tasting after one sip.
Vibrantly blue. Tastes like sweet, alcoholic cordial.
Casal Mendes Blue and Casal Mendes Blue Sparkling
The sparkling was tested on a panel of Mundus Vini judges, who rated it between 82 and 88 points. Both wines are clean and well made, with attractive floral notes and decent acidity. My 18-year-old self would have loved these sweet, well made wines, especially since the packaging is so pretty. FC
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2017 of Meininger’s Wine Business International magazine.