Berger: Ups and downs of red wine blends
The trend du jour for the American wine industry is the amorphous red wine blend, which I consider to be one of the best frauds to come along in decades.
A red wine blend is, as the name implies, a mélange of various grapes whose aim is to provide consumers with a friendly, easy-to-drink. everyday glass of red to go with dinner.
Such wines have been made for centuries, and in the years after Prohibition, as the California wine industry was recuperating from the devastating effects of the Great Experiment, varietal wines had almost no role in the market. Generics were everywhere.
It wasn’t until the mid-1940s when varietal wines first were produced in anything but infinitesimal amounts, and not until at least a decade later when Americans even had a vague idea of what they were, or were supposed to be.
The most popular generic brand at the time was Roma. Between 1943 and 1962, Roma wines sponsored many radio drama series, including the popular “Suspense.”
Most of the generic reds were called Burgundy, and as late as the 1960s, wine shops in San Francisco and other cities near Northern California’s Wine Country still carried Burgundies in casks from various larger wineries, using the winery names on each cask.
Patrons could bring their own jugs into shops and have them filled with their choice of wine from Sebastiani, Simi, Foppiano, Petroncelli and others.
In the early 1970s, each of those houses and many more offered such wine blends in bottles, usually at $1.99 a bottle, and each was representative of that house’s most widely planted varietal.
Simi’s Burgundy, was based on carignane, Sebastiani’s had a lot of zinfandel and barbera, and so forth. The workhorse wine in most such blends was carignane.
Today, the red wine blend often doesn’t identify what’s in it, yet consumers are asked to pay $20 or more. Often the wine is made up of nothing more than a series of grapes that wouldn’t sell on their own, occasionally with a red wine concentrate added as a significant flavor and color enhancer.
As for character, forget it. Rarely do these wines have the structure to work with food. But naïve wine buyers appear perfectly fine with paying such prices for many of the most uninteresting red blends, so the category is increasing.
Those who are a bit more adventuresome and are willing to try red wines from areas of the world in which the word distinctiveness comes to mind can find wines that are more characterful.
Here are a few wines to try that should offer at least a little more diversity than a homogenous blend of dull syrah made with acid insufficient to work with food.
Reds from Portugal’s Douro, often with juicy fruit, and a soft entry, but usually with good acidity. Even the expensive versions rarely top $20.
South African varietal wines such as pinotage or syrah that have personality. Many such wines can be found between $10 and $13 a bottle.
Beaujolais from France: Light, fruity and evanescent, they’re best served slightly chilled on a warm day. Prices are around $15.
Tuscan reds similar to Chianti, or even Chianti itself. They are usually tart enough to pair with pasta in tomato sauce. It’s not hard to find decent ones in the $8 to $12 range.
Red blends from the south of France (such as Provence), which can be made with the aromatic red grape grenache. Some producers say which grapes are used on the wine labels.
Côtes du Rhône, made in the many millions of cases, and which often has syrah and grenache blended with other local grapes.
Tip: If a winery says that its blended red wine is a family secret, I would be suspect.
And a final tip: Be especially wary of unrevealed blends that cost $30 or more. If a winery is proud of its wines, why would it try to hide what’s in the red blend?
Wine of the Week: 2016 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16): Classic white peach, gooseberry, lime and tropical aromatic profile, slightly sweet entry and finish, but broad, rich mid-palate fruit. This newly released New Zealand wine is annually an excellent value, and it is often discounted to $14 or less. Broadly distributed.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He also hosts a radio show, Wine Wednesdays, on KSRO in Santa Rosa.