By: Nan McCreary
With winter right around the corner, it’s time to give up those white, crispy porch wines and turn to something that warms the body and nourishes the soul. For most of us, that would be a red wine. And for many, the red wine of choice would be a red blend.
Red blends, wines made from two or more red wines, is one of the fastest growing categories in the American wine industry. Red blends are not new. Blended wines such as Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Amarone and Chianti have defined European wine regions for hundreds of years. But only recently — in the past decade or so — have American winemakers discovered the synergy that can be created by various grapes working together.
According to some experts, the red blend category started taking off with the introduction of two wines: Ménage à Trois, now owned by Trinchero Family Estates, and Apothic, owned by E. & J. Gallo. The real trendsetter, however, was the Prisoner, created in 2000 by Orin Swift’s winemaker Dave Phinney. Phinney’s first release was a mere 385 cases: The wine quickly developed a cult following and Phinney sold the Zinfandel blend and a few other labels in 2010 to the Prisoner Wine Company for $40 million. The Prisoner is now considered by some to be the “first true American red blend.”
So why are red blends so popular? There are many reasons, actually.
Red blends appeal to a wide range of audiences. Bottles below $15 tend to be sweeter and richer and easy-drinking; bottles above $15 generally have more structure and less residual sugar, and appeal to more serious wine drinkers. Some of the high-end red blends can stand among the world’s best.
Red blends can be greater than their individual parts. A skilled winemaker can combine the best aspects of two or three grape varieties into one masterpiece, offering the consumer an opportunity to taste more complexity that is not present in a single variety. For example, Cabernet Sauvignons are known for their black fruit, but a wine maker may want to add some red fruit, so he/she will blend in some Merlot. In a Cabernet-Zinfandel-Syrah blend, Cabernet provides the framework with acids and tannins as well as distinctive black current; Zinfandel gives an additional layer of jammy red and black berry fruit; and Syrah provides additional dark fruit flavors of blueberry and plum along with cracked black pepper. The result is a delightful combination of black fruit, red fruit, earth and spice.
Red blends are generally predictable. Many brands want to produce a house-style wine that is not only easy drinking, but consistently reliable. Since vineyards do not produce the same wine every year, this may require selecting grapes from different vineyard or vineyard blocks, plus some tinkering in the cellar. With a skilled winemaker at the helm, you can be reasonably certain that the next bottle you buy of your favorite brand will meet your expectations.
Red blends can be very food friendly. Red blends vary in flavor, body, acidity, and alcohol content, but as a general guideline, they are most likely to pair with richer entrées and meat dishes. Need a wine pairing for your barbeque, steak, or ribs? No problem: Choose a red blend. Serving a platter of fajitas or a bowl of pasta? Again, buy a red blend. However, when pairing red blends, avoid light dishes such as seafood and salad, as the wines will generally overwhelm the food.
According to experts, red blends will maintain a sizeable market share well into the future. And why not? The category offers well-crafted wines across a broad range of prices. The wine pairs with most foods, yet also stands alone. Plus, they appeal to just about anyone who likes red wine or to beginners who are looking for easy-to-drink options. And, for today’s innovative winemakers, the category is open territory in choices for expressing both the art and science of their craft. So, stock up. The shelves at your local wine store are filled with red blends…and cool weather is on its way!