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ProWein 2015: Specialist Insight – November 2014

Gregory Dal Piaz on Red Blends:
The Return of Great New Wines Build on Tradition

As with all consumer goods, wine is susceptible to fits of fads and fashion, though those in the wine industry tend to be few and far between. The current surge of interest in blends, and in particular red blends, may be seen as something revolutionary that is fundamentally changing the fabric of the wine industry, as it very well may be doing, but the truth of the matter is that red blends are simply a return to tradition, and perhaps a reaction against the monotony of varietal wines.

Yes, there, I’ve said it.

Varietal wines can be monotonous. Do we really need yet another Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, and how in the world does one make that new Cabernet stand out from the crowd? We’ve gone down the path of endlessly lowering yields, or jacking up the oak treatment, and while that may impress certain critics, consumers are increasingly speaking with their wallets. We seem to be living in a time when consumers want more value for their money, and more variety from their wines.

This variety is a driving factor behind the explosion of so-called, for lack of a better word, new red blends. In truth of course there have always been red blends, as the historic wines of the world, think Bordeaux, Rioja, and Chianti, have always been blended wines. Even the earliest California wines were typically blends, labeled Claret or something similar, and some of world's most intriguing wines are unique blends, such as those found in Lebanon (Chateau Musar) and the Languedoc (Mas Daumas Gassac).

Which brings us to the meat of our story: the reasons for, and frankly against, blending. To be certain there are advantages to blending red wines: consistency, complexity, value, and distinction to name the most prominent. On the flip side there is the apparent consumer bias preferring and assigning greater worth to varietal wines, though this might be limited to the new world. Studies from the past two decades have consistently indicated that the variety of grape listed on the label is the most important criteria used by the average consumer when selecting a bottle of wine.1 So how can we reconcile that with the explosive growth of the new red blends?

Marketing.

How else can one account for not only the continued growth of the category at the low end, where pricing often guides the decision making process, but right through the pricing spectrum. In fact, wineries reporting direct to consumer sales of red blends have reported spikes in volumes of sales at both the $30-$60 and $100+ price points. While the strength of higher priced offering in the DtC sector is not surprising, neither is the 20% year over year growth in sales of red blends through off-premise retailers, which was driven by the particularly strong performance of wines under $12, but once again reflected growth across all price points.2

Somehow wine marketing has slowly but steadily moved public perception of red blends away from bottom shelf jugs of wines and reshaped it to reflect a new reality. Those realities in turn reflects a new generation of consumers who appears to be more comfortable with their own palate and preferences, and are thus are more open to both experimentation with and more receptive to, wines that simply taste good, even if they contain some residual sugar. No scratch that. Particularly if they retain some residual sugar!

This is No Surprise.

It’s been three decades since White Zinfandel and subtly off-dry Chardonnay became runaway bestseller, and yet nothing like that had been successfully tried with red wines. Perhaps it was the stigma of inexpensive Italian red wines from the 1970s that prevented a wholesale adoption of sweet, blended red wines, but somehow the public remained resistant to red wines that were obviously, if subtly sweet.

Slowly that resistance was worn down. Both inexpensive, as well as some rather pricy red wines slowly crept up the residual sugar ladder through the 1990s and the 00s, carving out broad based consumer acceptance and critical acclaim for themselves, though remaining mostly varietal wines. That was, to a certain extent, their Achilles heel. Varietal wines are both the beneficiary of consistency, when the weather cooperates, as well as the victim of inconsistency, when the weather doesn’t. How to introduce some consistency to a wine, especially if one is planning, or hopeful, that one has a mega success on one’s hands? Blend it baby!

Red Blends have Arrived!

If you want further proof of the renewed appeal of red blends you need look no further than to France, of all places. Unlike many French wines you may be familiar with, Vin de France, a new category of French wines introduced in 2010, is not governed by a series of rules identifying which varieties can be grown in which specific vineyards. Instead this new category simply denotes a wine produced in France, of any variety and from any appellation. The intent here is not to compete with traditional French wines, but to allow French producers to compete with international brands that have always been able to plant and blend varieties as they see fit. The plan has been working, the wines are attracting consumers around the globe with sales that have more than quadrupled over the past three years, now representing 25% of French wine exports.

Specifically, France is competing with other countries that have seen their efforts at marketing varietal wines succeed then hit a plateau. From Australia today there are many fabulous red blends that feature Shiraz blended with Bordeaux varieties, from Chile we are finding that a dollop or more of Carmenere lends their wines distinction and an intriguing character, and from Argentina Malbec fills out many a red blend. All of these were course originally French varieties, though blended wines such as these would have been difficult or impossible to produce in France until the introduction of the Vin de France category offered French producers the freedom to produce, and compete on a global stage. I do not think that there can be any more convincing proof of the emerging power of red blends than this stark about face undertaken by France. It’s a forward looking and intelligent response to a dynamic and maturing world market.

It is an exciting time to be a purveyor of blended red wines, be they old school Bordeaux, Rioja, or Chianti or new world blends that are expanding the idea of what a red wine can be. With so many blended red wines being produced today it can be confusing to work through all of them. ProWein, International Trade Fair Wines and Spirits, in Düsseldorf, Germany (March 15 - 17, 2015) is the perfect place to familiarize yourself with the broad range of these wines. From feature pavilions filled with the wines of Chianti, Rioja and Bordeaux, to virtually all of the world’s great producers of red blends, and certainly all of the countries establishing a new identity through them, there is simply no better place to explore these wines and develop a deeper understanding of all the exciting possibilities that they offer. It’s also one of the few places on earth where you can taste through the lineups from both Chateau Musar and Mas Daumas Gassac under one roof, and that in and of itself is worth a trip!

1 U. R Orth and P. Krska in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review - Quality signs in wine marketing: the role of exhibition awards 2005 http://ifama.i4adev.com/files/385-397.pdf

2 Andrew Adams @ Wines and Vines -Metrics Signal Popularity of Red Blend Wines http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?content=129683§ion=news

Author Gregory Dal Piaz has been involved with wine for over three decades, beginning on the restaurant side of the business, before moving to retail, and now as Editor-in-Chief of Snooth.com.

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