Are you familiar with the scourge of so-called red blends?
Oops, my bad. Perhaps I got a little carried away there. “Scourge” might be a little extreme because many people have been lapping up this relatively new style of wine, which in my opinion emphasizes smoothness at the expense of other qualities that I look for in fine wine, such as subtlety, refinement and food-friendly acid lift.
Not that there’s anything wrong with smoothness per se. It’s how these wines come by their trademark plump fruitiness and cuddly texture that’s the issue for me. What they possess in common is a not-so-secret ingredient: sugar. Plenty of it – at least by dry-wine standards. I think of them as the syrup that sells like hotcakes.
Aimed squarely at the mass market, they go by such names as Cupcake Red Velvet, Apothic Red, Ménage à Trois Red, Bodacious Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Blend and Roscato Dark Red Blend. As you may have noticed, the superfluous declaration “red,” a colour that should be obvious from a glance at the liquid itself, tends to be a tip-off to the style, which also relies on a blend of grape varieties to achieve a curvy, cuddly profile and to maintain a consistent flavour profile from one vintage to another. Such is their popularity that I seem to discover a new one almost every week.
Now, all wines, including those we consider dry, contain some residual sweetness if for no other reason than yeasts are unable to consume every molecule of natural fruit sugar during fermentation. But the brands in question tend to be engineered with a more saccharine profile in mind.
Steeling myself for the painful sacrifice that wine critics must occasionally endure, I recently sampled a bunch of new red blends to see whether I could bring myself to recommend any. I’m afraid that, unlike the wines, I came up bone-dry. How sweet were these training-wheel cuvées? As a baseline contrast, consider an actually dry and famously smooth red from Australia called Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon. It contains 4 grams a litre of residual sugar, which is reasonable and squarely in the ballpark of a dry red, defined as ranging roughly between 1 g/l and 9 g/l. Cupcake Red Velvet, a moderately sweet example from California, measures 14 g/l, while Apothic, made by winery giant Gallo of California, serves up 17 g/l. Roscato Dark from Italy contains cloying 20 g/l and Niagara’s Bodacious Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Blend tips the scales at a whopping 25/ g/l.
You won’t often trip across such names in major daily newspaper wine columns such as this. One reason is that we critics tend to turn up our noses at cuvées that seem concocted in marketing boardrooms rather than by winemakers in mud-crusted rubber boots. The other is that the vast majority of consumers for whom these wines provide joy would never be possessed by the urge to read a wine column, in the same way that most superhero-movie fanatics don’t think to consult a New Yorker review before heading out to the Cineplex. Who needs critics when you can read an advertising billboard instead?
Here’s a keen insight from a 2018 report on the state of the U.S. wine industry by California-based Silicon Valley Bank: “From the consumer perspective, red blends are really the jug wine craze of the 1960s on steroids. Like the mature generation who cut their teeth on generics, emerging consumers are acquiescing to the branding of the large wine companies because wine is a complex consumer good and branding makes their purchase easier. It replaces varietal and vintage comparisons with something simple and catchy like Sexy Wine Bomb, The Prisoner, Vicious Red Blend, SLO Down Sexual Chocolate, or Cupcake Red Velvet.” But, as they say in the wine business, marketing only sells the first bottle; it’s what’s inside that keeps consumers coming back (and for a lot of these brands, sugar is the key).
My recent red-blend tasting prompted me to meditate again on the concept of smoothness in wine. I maintain that it’s a quality best achieved without resorting to the crutch of sweetness, in part because too much sugar, similar to too much oak or too much makeup, masks natural beauty as well as faults. You can call the smooth products below sexy, vivacious or bodacious if you like. Just don’t think of them as smoothie wines, as the kind that should be sipped through a straw.
Sangenis I Vaque Vall Por 2006, Spain
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $34.95
Dark, dense and chunky, this comes from Spain’s Priorat region, rich with old vines and many wines priced for the rich. The blend leads with classic local varieties garnacha (a.k.a. grenache) and carinena (carignan) along with splashes of cabernet and merlot. As with many wines from the sunny northeastern region, it’s high in alcohol, at 15 per cent, which it carries well under all that fruity intensity. But there’s much more than just bold, chewy fruit and smoothness here, namely suggestions of melted dark chocolate, flowers, aromatic spices and a roasted, toasty quality. Still fresh at 13 years, it could benefit from up to 10 more in the cellar. Try it with roast lamb, though it is splendid on its own. Available in Ontario.
Kitsch 5 Barrel Pinot Noir 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $69
It’s expensive, but please don’t blame the messenger. When a producer turns out something this good, all is forgiven. From a relatively new and ambitious winery, this pinot is medium-bodied and delectably smooth and jammy in the best way. The flavours suggest berry-pie filling, blueberry and nuances of smoky bacon, beetroot, caramel and baking spices. Fermented with native yeasts, it’s smartly balanced with bright acidity and gently sticky tannins. Kudos to Okanagan winemaker Grant Biggs. kitschwines.ca.
Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2016, Australia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.99
Not cheap. Yet this red, so consistent from year to year, could shame many a higher-priced grand cru from France in both balance and cellar-worthiness. Succulent with sweet boysenberry- and plum-like fruit, it’s round and smooth, with complementary essences of mocha, cedar, tobacco, smoke and suede, structured around slightly dusty tannins. Available at the above price in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $49.98 in Saskatchewan.
Pierre Amadieu Romane-Machotte Gigondas 2015, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.95
So meaty, so round and so wonderfully aromatic and stylistically representative of the southern Rhône Valley. This red is 80-per-cent grenache with 20-per-cent syrah, a lavender bomb with notes of cherry, blackberry and incense. A good candidate for medium-term cellaring and for roast lamb or hearty game dishes. Drink it over the next decade. Available in Ontario. The equally excellent Amadieu Domaine Grand Romane 2016 is available in British Columbia for $39.99 and in Quebec for $31.
Konzelmann Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2016, Ontario
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $15.95
Marvellous. Oily, smooth and delectable, here’s a medium-sweet wine that tastes much drier than one might expect from the late-harvest designation and, impressively contains less sugar a litre than many supposedly dry red wines. It’s crafted from gewurztraminer, after all, a grape that can seem sweeter than it is simply because of its low acidity. Medium-bodied, this Niagara white offers up homey flavours of cooked apple, lychee, ginger and aromatic spices. Balance-wise, it’s a brilliant sleight of hand. Available in Ontario stores and direct via store.konzelmann.ca.
Kaiken Ultra Las Rocas Malbec 2016, Argentina
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Smoothness is a hallmark of many if not most Argentine malbec at this price, but Kaiken’s Las Rocas goes well beyond that crowd-pleasing quality with layered flavours and almost no residual sweetness (at a negligible 3 grams a litre of residual sugar). Full, dense and smooth, it packs a big suitcase of dark plum, licorice, chocolate, and blueberry flavours. And there’s a satisfying tug from well-buffed tannins. Perfect for stewed or grilled red meats. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in select British Columbia and Alberta private stores.
Galil Mountain Alon 2014, Israel
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
A red blend based on cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Full and velvety, with all the sunny ripeness Israel has to offer, this kosher red is delectably smooth yet structured, with notes of berry syrup, coffee, chocolate and spices. Perfect for lamb and worth cellaring for up to eight years. Available in Ontario at the above price, $25.05 in Quebec.
Girard Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2015, California
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
Full-bodied and seductively creamy, here’s a classically Californian chardonnay from a very good producer. It’s voluptuously smooth and buttery and packed with tropical fruit balanced by soft acidity and barrel notes of spices and vanilla. Available in Ontario, $42.98 at Everything Wine in British Columbia (and varying prices elsewhere in the province), various prices in Alberta.
Masserie Pisari Primitivo 2017, Italy
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
Full-bodied, ripe and smooth, this southern Italian red based on primitivo (a.k.a. zinfandel) comes across like dark chocolate studded with raisins and roasted nuts. Edibly dense, with good grip and sticky tannins. Good for red-meat stews, saucy ribs or chili, among other things. Available in Ontario.
Join wine critic Beppi Crosariol and other Globe and Mail journalists this July aboard the Globe Portugal Cruise. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.