Food & Drink

Red-wine blends gaining popularity

Inexpensive red blends often are a bit sweeter, making them a good fit for new consumers.
Inexpensive red blends often are a bit sweeter, making them a good fit for new consumers. Getty Images/iStockphoto

A California winemaker’s seminar on blending red wines was a revelation, demonstrating to me, at least, that adding just 2 percent of sweet, soft malbec wine to a muscular cabernet sauvignon could take off some of its tannic edge and make it purr.

In part, this is why red wine blends are gaining such popularity right now. Some wine fans say inexpensive red blends will replace white zinfandel as entry wines for the millennial generation as it reaches drinking age.

“In recent years, blends have accounted for almost 41 percent of the new wine entrants in the U.S. market,” says a report by the New York-based Nielsen Co. market research firm.

In a way, red blends are currently the craft beer of the wine category. They’re hip, different and trending

Nielsen Co. market research firm report

It goes on: “In a way, red blends are currently the craft beer of the wine category. They’re hip, different and trending.”

This is not to say all red blends are entry-level. Far from it. France’s hallowed red Bordeaux wines and U.S. “meritage” wines are red blends. And they can be powerful, even muscular, and cost hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Still, blended reds tend to be softer, less astringent than single-variety reds. A typical blend might have powerful, tannic cabernet sauvignon mixed with softer reds such as merlot, malbec and such. And inexpensive red blends often are a bit sweeter, helping to bridge that gap for new consumers.

At first, red wine blends tended to follow the example of French Bordeaux wines, softening cabernet sauvignon by wine law with a specific list of varieties — merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.

Some California wines follow the Bordeaux example. Trione’s 2011 “Block Twenty-One” Alexander Valley does that, blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec.

But more recently the slogan seems to be “everybody into the pool.”

Kendall-Jackson blends merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petite sirah, carignan and other grapes into its soft, smooth Avant Red Blend.

Other winemakers swap the blends. Matanzas Creek Winery’s 2012 Merlot is 97.7 percent merlot and 2.3 percent cabernet sauvignon. That tiny amount could add structure.

Under California law, to call itself a varietal such as cabernet sauvignon, a wine must get 75 percent of its volume from that grape.

So Freemark Abbey’s 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 75.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, with the rest divided among four other grapes.

Still other wineries go for subtlety. Kenwood Vineyards fine-tunes its “Sonoma Mountain” cabernet sauvignon with just 1 percent of syrah. Shafer adds 1 percent petit verdot to its 2013 “One Point five” cabernet sauvignon.

Winemakers, I think, sometimes see themselves as chefs. Their rule is “a pinch of this, a pinch of that.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Highly recommended blends

  • 2013 Shafer “One Point Five” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Stags Leap District, Napa Valley (99 percent cabernet sauvignon, 1 percent petit verdot): aromas of sweet oak and black cherries, flavors of black raspberries and black pepper, opulent and full-bodied, big, ripe tannins; $85.
  • 2012 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (75.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16.6 percent merlot, 3.3 percent cabernet franc, 2.6 percent petit verdot, 2 percent malbec): hint of oak, aromas and opulent flavors of black plums, bittersweet chocolate and spice, long, smooth finish; $50.
  • 2013 Kenwood Vineyards “Jack London” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain (99 percent cabernet sauvignon, 1 percent syrah): aromas and flavors of black plums and pumpkin pie spices, rich and hearty and smooth, long finish; $35.
  • 2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot, Sonoma County (97.7 percent merlot, 2.3 percent cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of red raspberries, mocha and herbs, smooth tannins, long finish; $28.

Recommended

  • 2013 Avant Red Blend by Kendall-Jackson, Calif. (50 percent merlot, 22 percent syrah, 9 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent malbec, 7 percent petite sirah, 3 percent carignan and others): soft and smooth, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and milk chocolate; $17.
  • 2012 Storyteller “Ever After” Red Blend, Sonoma County (60 percent syrah, 40 percent merlot): hint of oak, flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, long, smooth finish; $15.
  • 2014 Leese-Fitch Cabernet Sauvignon, Calif. (80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent grenache, 2 percent tempranillo, 2 percent barbara, 2 percent alicante bouchet, 2 percent mixed varieties): aromas and flavors of black raspberries, cinnamon and milk chocolate, full body; $12.
  • 2014 CK Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Wildcreek Canyon, Calif. (76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent ruby cabernet, 5 percent syrah, 4 percent petite sirah, 3 percent petit verdot, 2 percent zinfandel, 3 percent other grapes): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and espresso, full body, ripe tannins; $7.
  • 2011 Trione Cabernet Sauvignon “Block Twenty-One,” Alexander Valley (85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent petit verdot, 2 percent malbec): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums and cinnamon, big, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $67.
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