It’s hard to taste the difference between the reproduction and the real deal at Denver-based Integrated Beverage Group, where winemakers and scientists are reverse-engineering popular wine brands at a cost savings to wine drinkers. “We’re providing great wine made in the traditional way at a good price with science guiding us along the way,” explains IBG chief wine officer Brett Zimmerman.
The process of replicating a popular wine like Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay or the Prisoner Red Blend begins in the lab at Ellipse Analytics. Analysts use an array of mass spectrometers and other sophisticated machines to determine the target wine’s chemical properties at the parts-per-billion level. Hundreds of identified chemical compounds determine the aroma, taste and color of wine. The buttery taste in chardonnay, for example, comes from diacetyl, while the bell-pepper aroma in malbec comes from methoxypyrazine.
Ellipse Analytics tests the target wine’s chemical properties and matches these properties to taste and aroma descriptors such as oak, spice, floral, fruit or other wine notes. The resulting profile gives winemakers a map for re-creating the wine. Veteran winemakers in California, Italy and Oregon then experiment with traditional blending and aging techniques to achieve a facsimile of the original.
The replica returns to the lab where it is first tested for pesticides, metals and microtoxins that occasionally turn up in wine. Says Ari Walker, IGB’s CEO, “We are passionate about putting a product before people that’s pure.” Testing for purity is one of Ellipse Analytics’ specialties. The lab tests foods and beverages for industrial and environmental contaminants for the Clean Label Project and other clients.
Once the replica wine has passed the purity test, its profile is compared to the original. This stage also requires a human touch. Zimmerman, a master sommelier, samples the replica and offers his expert opinion on how the wine can be improved. The results go to the winery for fine-tuning. “We can’t witchcraft flavor. It must be done naturally,” says Dr. Sean Callan, director of operations and quality at Ellipse.
The fine-tuned replica then faces its biggest test. IBG assembles a panel of thirty to fifty tasters, where the majority of participants must find the wines indistinguishable.
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I tasted (in the interest of journalism) four of IBG’s Replica wines against the originals. Though primarily a red-wine drinker, I was fooled by both Pickpocket and Just Right. Pickpocket, a dark red blend with blackberry and chocolate notes, is a spot-on reproduction of the Prisoner, at half to a third of the cost of the original, depending on where you buy it. You’ll also save a few dollars on Just Right, an imitation of Joel Gott cabernet sauvignon, a good supper wine.
I was able to pick out the Knockoff for being slightly tastier than the Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve chardonnay on which it is based. You’ll get a better wine for a lower price with this one. IBG’s Sempre e Per Sempre chardonnay was almost indistinguishable to my palate from its target: Far Niente Chardonnay. This deliciously crisp, low-oak chardonnay is a third of the cost of the $60 original. Anyone who can detect a difference is unlikely to care much about it.
Find out more about IBG’s Replica and other award-winning wines and peruse the company's online shop. But if you want to put them to a side-by-side test, you'll have to hunt down the originals yourself.