Less than a decade ago, you didn’t hear about red blends. Sure, red grape varieties have been blended by European winemakers for centuries, but producers were limited by law to specific varieties. Bordeaux, for instance, is limited to five varieties; Rhone has 13.
For years, U.S. wine producers emulated European standards in hopes of achieving equal acclaim and even invented the term “meritage” to identify blends made with the five Bordeaux grape varieties. However, with the success of several conglomerates like E&J Gallo with its hot seller Apothic Red and Trinchero with its Menage a Trois, the gloves have come off. Syrah, zinfandel, tannat, tempranillo, alicante bouschet and more are sharing the bottle with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The market has witnessed an explosion of red blends. In fact, red blends account for 40 percent of the new labels being introduced in the United States.
American wine consumers are loving them. The category has risen to third – just behind chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – in wine sales. And more blends are flooding the market daily with names like Kitchen Sink and Conundrum to symbolize their unrestricted recipes.
What’s driving this trend? Casual wine enthusiasts, especially millennials, don’t want to get hung up on a wine’s composition. Instead, they are drawn to catchy labels and couldn’t care less that the wine is a blend of a dozen varieties. The Prisoner red blend is a good example of a label that took advantage of this trend. Dave Phinney – who owned no winery or vineyards – invented a hedonistic, ripe and sweet blend that developed a cult following. Others – many with augmented reality wine labels, such as 19 Crimes – proved that the first step in selling a wine is creating a special label.
From a consumer’s standpoint, there is a lot to like in this category. Red blends can be reasonably priced as producers take advantage of cheaper grapes and eschew the use of expensive oak. Apothic Red and Menage a Trois – the top two sellers – are $7 to $8 a bottle. That’s a good price point for daily plonk.
Whether you will be satisfied with these inexpensive wines may depend on your threshold for sugar. Winemakers discovered that a bit of sweetness enhances a wine on first sip. With consumers dumping cups of sweet barbecue sauce and ketchup on their foods, there is little risk that a touch of sweetness is going to offend anyone.
So, what does blending do for a wine?
Imagine if you are a chef and are allowed to use only oregano in your beef stew. Then, along comes another chef with no restrictions and he adds parsley, paprika and rosemary. Who do you think is going to have the more flavorful stew?
It’s the same with wine. Different grape varieties introduce different elements to a wine. Petite sirah brings color. Cabernet sauvignon brings weight, grenache adds strawberry flavors. Semillon can tame the acidity of sauvignon blanc. Gewurztraminer and alicante bouschet add aromatics. Zinfandel adds fruit and alcohol.
However, what’s left unsaid in this mad chemistry is the disappearance of acidity. It’s acidity, not sugar, that makes wine a good match with food. While a sweet blend may be ideal with ribs slathered with barbecue sauce, they are not ideal against a marbled New York strip. Pick your battles.
We’ve tasted a ton of red blends in recent months because they are literally flooding the market. Even tradition-bound producers on the West Coast are releasing ripe, off-dry red blends to get into this hot category.
Here are several blends we recently tasted:
Jamieson Ranch Vineyards Whiplash Red Blend 2016 ($13). This Napa winery, new to us, has a series of great values. This blend is outstanding for the price. Plump with black cherry and cranberry flavors and soft tannins that give it more body than most inexpensive red blends. We served it with pulled pork – outstanding!
- Chalk Hill Sonoma County Red 2016 ($25). Technically, this could be label cabernet sauvignon but the “red” has cache. Malbec, zinfandel and merlot are added to give the wine a broader profile with rich texture and dark fruit components. More complex than most red blends.
- Decoy Sonoma County Red Wine 2016 ($25). More than half of this wine is merlot, which provides some elegance to the profile, but for depth and character zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and petit verdot are added. Nice spice adds to the blueberry and cassis flavors.
- No Curfew Red Wine 2016 ($15). This is a very delicious and balanced blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. Raspberry notes enveloped in a round mouthfeel with oak-infused vanilla and chocolate flavors. This is an invention of Amici, a producer known for its great values.
Beyond Ordinary Cabernet Blend 2016 ($15). We didn’t expect much from this South African blend, but were we ever surprised. This blend uses all five Bordeaux grape varieties and offers French appeal with black currant and dark fruit flavors, soft tannins and hints of pepper and leather.
- Apex Red Blend “The Catalyst” 2016 ($17). There are 14 grape varieties in this complex and well-priced blend from Washington state. Syrah dominates the blend, though, and provides effuse red berry flavors. Nice dose of fine tannins gives it body for a foil to grilled steaks.
- 7 Moons Dark Side Red Blend 2017 ($13). If you’re looking for a gift for Halloween or Valentine’s Day, this has sweet written all over it. A motley blend of seven red grape varieties, this wine celebrating the seven phases of the moon has chocolate, jammy blackberry and caramel flavors. It’s a great match to chocolate.
Bonterra Organic Wines Equinox Red 2016 ($16). This merlot and petite sirah blend is dense and juicy with blackberry, cherry and plum fruit character, a dash of herbs and spice. The oak influence adds some vanilla and chocolate flavors.
- Matthews Winery Claret 2014 ($30). A friend introduced us to this gem from Washington’s Columbia Valley. Using all five Bordeaux grape varietals it is truly a Bordeaux blend. Generous aromas of blueberries and herbs are followed by dark berry and currant flavors. Long in the finish and soft mouthfeel, it is a wine that can be enjoyed now.
- Toccata Classico Santa Barbara County 2015 ($29). Sangiovese (50 percent) is blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, freisa and petit verdot to create a unique wine among the red blends. Vibrant, generous red and black fruit flavors with good structure and hints of earth and spice.