Red-blend wines are more popular than ever. Thanks to a confluence of factors affecting both American wine consumers and the wine industry itself, the category continues to expand.
The American consumer’s desire for wines that stand up better against the rich foods they enjoy, and wines with approachable names and labels that minimize the intimidation factor, as well as advances in the wine industry’s supply chain, have come together to make this truly the era of red blends.
“For the past five or six years, or maybe even longer than that, we’ve been seeing this astronomical rise in red blends, in particular among California wines,” says Marnie Old, sommelier and author of Wine: A Tasting Course. “Now we’re starting to see blends from other places benefit from that trend and that surge.”
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One such example is Hopes End, which, according to Brittany Klutzke, a spokesperson for Trinchero Family Estates, “combines the power of red blends with the surge of imports.” Klutzke describes Hopes End as “an intensely flavored, darkly intriguing wine from the soils of South Australia.”
While many wines have traditionally been blended, they weren’t promoted as blends on their labels. The modern trend in red blends really started taking off about a decade ago and is widely credited to two wines: Ménage à Trois, now owned by Trinchero Family Estates, and Apothic, owned by E. & J. Gallo.
And both wines show no signs of slowing down.
Ménage à Trois has had three consecutive No. 1 new wine item releases in the U.S. retail market over the past three years, according to data from The Nielsen Company. In fact, as recently as September, the brand continued to expand with the release of Ménage à Trois Decadence, a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with 10 percent Petite Sirah and 6 percent Merlot. Decadence joins the top-performing red blends Midnight and Silk as the 17th addition to the Ménage à Trois portfolio.
But it’s Apothic Red that’s currently the top red blend in the country. “It is complemented by a portfolio of other blends that are also seeing success with consumers,” says Christine Jagher, the director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo. “One of our newest brands, Prophecy, offers a red blend sourced from Washington and California, and Orin Swift Cellars offers a portfolio of unique red blends with disruptive, tantalizing packaging.”
The clear success of Ménage à Trois and Apothic has aroused interest in red blends across the U.S. wine industry. These wines now account for almost 40 percent of the new entrants in the U.S. market, according to the 2016 annual review of the industry from “Wine Business Monthly.” And according to Gallo, last year red blends edged up to the number three spot in U.S. retail sales, just behind workhorse varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
This comes as the overall red-blend category grew at a 7 percent clip at all price points during the 12 weeks that ended on September 10, 2017, according to IRI data. And in a reflection of the trading-up trend affecting much of the wine category today, super-luxury red blends priced at over $25 drove much of the growth, increasing by 33 percent, the IRI data for the same 12 weeks shows.
Additionally, according to data from leading U.S. retailers from the past 52 weeks, red blends have recently surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon within the commercial premium ($8 to $11) segment, to become the top-selling category at that price point.
What has fueled the desire for these blended red wines, which tend to be easier to drink and are more likely than traditional wines to be enjoyed by beginners? “This is a Coca-Cola culture,” Old says of America, “and I don’t think it surprises anybody in the business that a little bit of sweetness makes a wine taste better on first sip. Especially to beginner audiences, especially to people who are drinking a wine without food, especially to people who are attuned to the kind of sauces and seasonings that we so often use in American cuisine that you would never find in Italy or in traditional French cuisine.”
Rodrigo Maturana, the chief marketing officer and export director for Fetzer Vineyards, whose company markets the red blends The McNab and The Butler as part of its Bonterra collection, points out that “red blends tend to have a softer tannin profile than other popular red varietal categories, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Some qualitative research has shown that while many consumers gravitate to red wines, they prefer a softer mouthfeel and rounder palate experience than is often associated with traditional reds. Red blends fill this ‘gap’ in wine style, combining richness with a more mellow, approachable style.”
Furthermore, younger, millennial wine drinkers are not as hung up on wine traditions, or even on knowing how to pronounce certain grape varieties, for example. In fact, many are turned off or intimidated by them, according to a 2015 Gallo Consumer Wine Trends Survey. These red blends, bearing easy-to-pronounce, familiar-sounding names, remove that intimidation factor. “Learning the names of a whole bunch of grapes, or learning the towns and counties and wine regions that make the best Pinot Noir versus the best Cabernet—that’s a lot of work for people who are just casual wine drinkers,” says Old. “If they can find wines that please the palate without that kind of intellectual baggage, then yes, that’s another part of the appeal.”
Constellation Brands’ red blend The Prisoner is marketed just this way. “We produce high-quality, approachable wine that takes the intimidation out of the purchase,” says a brand representative. “The Prisoner appeals to consumers who want to explore and are willing to go against the expected.”
Adds Gallo’s Jagher, “Many red blends offer edgy, unconventional packaging, and we find their consumers are more open to new ideas and styles.”
Old also points out that the extra sweetness found in some of today’s most popular red blends could not have come about without further assistance from the American wine industry’s modern supply chain. The 1 to 1.5 percent residual sugar found in some of these wines, coupled with their lower acidity and tannin, could have caused the wines to referment in the bottles, even popping and cracking them along the way, if it wasn’t for today’s temperature-controlled supply chain.
“Acidity and tannin being the two things that act to preserve wine, those had always been kind of key ingredients in classic fine wine because they’re things that prevent oxidation and give wine the ability to resist spoilage over time,” Old explains. “But essentially, in our modern marketplace, we can get wine to market pretty quickly and we don’t really have to rely on wine resisting spoilage the same way we used to. We have more or less a temperature-controlled supply chain at most levels, so it’s now feasible to do something that didn’t used to be safe.”
But as the popularity of red blends, with their catchy names and easy drinkability, continues to soar in the U.S., could this have the unexpected effect of threatening some of the wine industry’s long-held traditions? After all, few beverages have as much cultural heritage as do wines.
Not if professionals like George Feaver, the wine director at PJ’s Wines in Manhattan, have anything to say about it. He describes many of today’s red blends as beginner wines that are critical to getting more consumers on board with the beverage. And if he sees regular customers growing a bit, shall we say, lazy with their selections, he’ll gently nudge them to expand their wine-drinking experience.
“The wine world is a big world, and New York is the crossroads of the wine world, so everything is available,” Feaver says. “For the most part, I don’t think people are just going to buy cases of these red blends and that’s what they drink for the rest of their lives. It’s just a stopping point, I think, on a person’s wine-consuming journey.”
Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was Managing Editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewkap.