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India's all ears for Pink Elephant

Seeing pink elephants may be a euphemism for drunken hallucination s, but for Bill Rolfe and 10 International such a creature is no dream .

Christian Davis reports
27 August, 2008
Page 21 
News that a wine created specifically to go with Asian food is to be launched in India brings the old British adage of "taking coals to Newcastle" to mind. Pink Elephant, a Portuguese rosé wine, has been picked up by United Vintners, which is part of the Indian group United Breweries, the third largest spirits producer in the world.

That may not be a huge story in itself, but the potential of India, coupled with the people behind Pink Elephant and its creator, 10 International , makes it interesting.

There are an estimated 700,000 wine drinkers in India (source: United Beverages Group) but the potential is a mouthwatering 20 to 30 million. At present three-quarters of the wine drunk in India is local and 41 per cent is described as premium domestic.

Bottled imports amount to 18 per cent and bulk imports 4 per cent. While beer and spirits such as whisky and gin have associations with India's colonial past, wine is cosmopolitan and fashionable, if not avant garde. A Bollywood star is unlikely to be seen with anything else. Also, wine is perceived as healthy.

For 10 International founder Bill Rolfe, this could be his chance to make a breakthrough. After 30 years with UK off-licence chain Unwins (now defunct), working his way up from shop assistant to marketing director , then four years as international marketing director at United Wineries (Arco Bodegas Unidas), Spain's third largest wine producer with brands such as Berberana, Marqués de Monistrol and Marqués de Griñón , he's paid his dues.

Following a company re organisation, Rolfe and a colleague, Toby Hancock, left and decided to pool their international knowledge to look for opportunities in the wine sector. 10 International was born in June 2006, the concept being to work with 10 producers in 10 countries to create 10 new wine brands.

The first project was to create a wine that would go with spicy food. Rolfe and Hancock held a blind tasting in the Masala Zone Indian restaurant in London with 12 well-known writers, journalists and masters of wine - the likes of Sarah Jane Evans MW, Anthony Rose, John Radford, Christine Parkinson and Matthew Jukes.

Tasting rosé wines from brands such as Jacob's Creek and E&J Gallo, the panel scored which they liked and commented on which they thought went best with the dishes. Contrary to expectations, the panel did not like the sweeter wines. They felt the ones that went best had some balancing acidity.

Winemakers José Neiva and Dave Baverstock (Sir Cliff Richard's winemaker, no less), used these comments as a basis for their work and the result was Pink Elephant, which is currently a blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alfro cheiro Preto (or Pé de Rato, which means mouse paw) and Castelão (or Periquita, which means parrot). The new 2007 will be 50 per cent Touriga Nacional.

Pink Elephant having been generally well accepted in the UK, Rolfe got an unexpected recommendation from the Wine Society of India, namely board members Steven Spurrier (the man about to be portrayed by Alan Rickman in the film about the famous Paris tasting, where fine Bordeaux wines were trounced by Californian wines ) and David Banford.

"Steven saw the potential," says Rolfe. "He told us to do some research and basically there is an emerging middle class that has quadrupled over the past five years. There is clearly an opportunity so we approached United Breweries."

Rolfe and Hancock have other irons in the fire - there is a Spanish wine, Altaro ; one from Argentina should be coming soon, and they are in talks with Chilean and Californian producers.

For the time being, though, they just have the one elephant in their room, so to speak. Pink Elephant currently sells 300,000 bottles and Rolfe expects it to top a million this year. If India takes to it, that room may need considerable enlarging.