Natalie McAnulla, the assistant manager at HB Liquors Sheridan in suburban Denver, has a theory about why so many people are buying so many so-called red blends at her store.
“When Robert Mondavi and the Gallos first made wine, they made it for immigrants who knew that red wine was dry,” she says. “Today, they’re making red blends for the children and grandchildren of the immigrants, who grew up on soft drinks and expect wine to be sweet.”
Because today’s red blends have almost nothing in common with the traditional red blends that McAnulla describes. First, they’re sweet, where traditional red blends are dry, and they’re aimed at an audience where smooth is a key wine descriptor. Second, they’re marketing driven, with clever names like Ménage à Trois and eye-catching labels like the 19 Crimes silhouettes. Traditional red blends often have centuries of tradition behind them, like the reds from Bordeaux and the Rhône, and the labels are as old-fashioned as wine labels get, often including a line illustration of the chateau.
And third, the new red blends are generally — but not always — cheap, sometimes costing less than $10. They’re not necessarily made with the same percentage of specific grapes in the blend, or even the same grapes, from vintage to vintage, often relying on what’s least expensive — so lots of Merlot one year, but lots of Syrah the next. On the other hand, traditional red blends often stick to defined proportions and can be some of the most expensive wines in the world. This is particularly true for the red wines of Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, where only very specific grapes can be blended together. Putting Zinfandel with Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, would be illegal.
Where did modern red wine blends come from?
Back in 1996, Folie à Deux Winery in St. Helena hired Scott Harvey to be winemaker and president. He found himself working alongside winemaker Dr. Richard Peterson, and their combined creativity took wine in a new direction. Harvey was passionate about both Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and his new job gave him access to high quality material of both. The next step was blending the two grapes, which had rarely been considered partners, and adding Merlot. The result was dubbed Ménage à Trois, and it was an immediate success. The distinctively American red blend was born.
There had been plenty of red blends before, including California’s traditional field blends, which were red wines literally made from whatever grapes were in the field. There were simple table wines, like E&J Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. Then there was Meritage, an attempt by Californian winemakers to create a strictly-defined Bordeaux blend, which never took off. What made Ménage à Trois different, however, was that it was a serious wine, sold at a premium price.
Then in 2000, came another milestone. Winemaker Dave Phinney released 385 cases of a Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Charbono blend, because they were the only grapes he could get his hands on. Called The Prisoner, the $35 wine wasn’t just an unusual blend but also esthetically unusual, with a macabre label that showed a shackled prisoner. It stood out — and people couldn’t get enough of it. In 2016, Constellation bought the brand for $285 million, and even went so far as to create a winery for it.
The red blend category was sizzling, but it was still expensive. The big companies were quick to notice the opportunity and move in. Gallo’s blockbuster red blend, Apothic, was released in 2010, and then came Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes in 2012, complete with an augmented reality label. The brands were smooth, high in residual sugar, under $15 — and targeted at young men more used to drinking soda.
“So that’s why they did tastings at barbecues and state fairs, and why the labels are darker and more masculine,” says Dr Liz Thach MW, the Distinguished Professor of Wine and Management at Sonoma State University. “The split is closer to 50-50 today, but in the beginning, the whole idea was to bring more men into the category. This is a wine that was sweet, but that would be OK for men to drink.”
Red blends were an instant success, and other wine companies were quick to notice. Soon enough, inexpensive red blends were everywhere.
“These wines were a way for the biggest wine producers to reach a large group of consumers who like what they like and who aren’t embarrassed about what they like,” says Napa wine marketing consultant Jennifer Tincknell. “So why not make these consumers a professional wine with top-notch packaging, since that’s what they want?”
It’s all about sugar
That price difference has been one of the keys to the phenomenal growth of red blends over the past decade. Today, Apothic, Ménage à Trois — which is now an inexpensive, mass-market brand — and 19 Crimes belong to the second best-selling red wine category in the U.S.; as of 2019, they were in second place behind Cabernet Sauvignon, outpacing stalwarts like Merlot and Zinfandel.
“These are wines for casual drinkers,” says John Volpe, who owns The Wine Guy, a retailer on New York’s Long Island. “These are not for wine geeks. They’re for people who aren’t hung up on specific varieties, who want something that’s pleasant, and who want a lot of bang for their buck. And they much prefer to call them smooth and not sweet.”
They’re not as sweet as a soft drink, but just sweet enough to cover up the tannins — the chemical in red wine from the grape skins that adds bitterness and astringency — hence, smooth. The sugar levels can be as high as 16.4g/L, which is around four teaspoons of sugar.
“I think, if you look at the history of these new red blends, that they have always been soft, if not necessarily sweet,” says California winemaker Cameron Hughes. He points out that Folie à Deux, the winery that first made Ménage à Trois, never intended to do a red Bordeaux-style wine. “It was always about being soft and round and juicy,” says Hughes. “So making the wine sweeter, when that happened after the brand was sold, was just about taking the next step.”
Yet most of these red blends don’t say they’re sweet anywhere on the label, since Americans, as Volpe notes, have been taught that red wine should not be sweet. That’s the province of pink wines, like white Zinfandel and white wines, like Moscato. A traditional dry red, on the other hand, will have sugar under 10g/L, and possibly under 5g/L, or just over one teaspoon of sugar.
What does this mean for anybody standing in front of the Great Wall of Wine at the supermarket, trying to decide between a commercial red blend and a traditional?
Spot the difference
Most of the new red blends, save for the hugely popular 19 Crimes from Australia, are made in California. It’s much rarer to find European wines made like this, and those that are, typically have bold, American-style labels.
The wording on the back label is also often a giveaway. The descriptors may include — but are not limited to — words like smooth, rich, silky, velvety, and even decadent. Vanilla, as in sweet vanilla, is also common, as is cinnamon, which really isn’t a wine flavor. Finally, these wines always seem to be described in terms of chocolate, be it mocha or chocolate cherry or chocolate kisses, or even chocolate silk.
Which means it’s no surprise the wines are so popular. They’re sweet, smooth, and inexpensive — and who wouldn’t enjoy the taste of chocolate cherries? But what they’re not, however, is a traditional red wine blend.
3 red blends to try:
A traditional red Bordeaux blend that’s 80% Merlot, fleshed out with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but made in a more modern style. So it has plenty of fresh dark berry fruit, but tempered by a bit of earth, an almost pine forest aroma, and nicely done tannins.
There is nothing subtle about this Washington state red, made with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. There’s lots of oak, lots of big, dark red fruit, lots of green herbs, and even more fruit on the finish. This one is for lovers of bold wines.
This unusual Paso Robles blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah is more than the sum of its parts. While it’s got plenty of sweet cherry berry fruit, it’s also got lots of juiciness, a long, almost stony finish, and fine earthy tannins.