Has sweet red wine taken over the U.S. wine market?

sweet red wineIs it possible that sweet red wine sales totaled one-third of all the chardonnay sold in the U.S. over the past year? And did slightly better against cabernet sauvignon? Or that sweet red wine outsold syrah, zinfandel, and malbec over that time period, and almost overtook merlot?

Hard to believe, but apparently true. A leading wine industry analyst, working with proprietary data, has estimated sweet red wine sales in the 52 weeks ending April 25 were about $534 million. That means, besides outselling syrah, zinfandel, and malbec, sweet red also did better than moscato — the current next big thing — and missed sauvignon blanc by just a couple of percentage points.

The analyst — call him Smart Wine Guy — asked not to be identified because his figures are based on that proprietary data, and legal problems could ensue if I used his name. But he has worked in the wine business for most of his life, including stints in retail and for Big Wine.

Smart Wine Guy used sales figures for red blends that cost between $7.50 and $15.49 a bottle and are sold in grocery and liquor stores. That includes most of the wine we think of as sweet red — those blends, like Apothic and Menage a Trois Red, that have more residual sugar than traditional dry red wine. It also includes red blends like 14 Hands Hot to Trot that aren’t identified as sweet red in most sales surveys, even though they’re as sweet as Apothic. Hence Smart Wine Guy’s total is three times bigger than Nielsen’s sweet red total, which is the accepted sales number but which probably undercounts sweet red sales.

The other things to know about these figures?

? Some 80 percent of sweet red wine is sold in grocery stores. By comparison, about two-thirds of cabernet sauvignon in the U.S. is sold in supermarkets. This should scare the hell out of liquor stores that assume sweet red drinkers don’t matter.

? Sweet red’s success is just five or six years old, dating to Apothic’s debut. There has always been sweet red, of course, but Apothic was the first brand to treat it like real wine, with a proper bottle, better quality, and well-designed label. In those five years, sweet red has become the one of the top six categories in U.S. wine.

? Sweet red sales increased about 20 percent last year, even though the overall wine market was flat, chardonnay declined almost one percent, and cabernet grew just four percent.

? Apothic, Menage a Trois Red, and Cupcake Red Velvet account for about half of the sweet red wine sold in the U.S. Not coincidentally, all are Big Wine products. If anyone who doubts the power of Big Wine still needs to be convinced, this is it.

? The best-selling sweet reds are just slightly sweet, and aren’t the over the top sweet bombs that many people expected when the sweet red market was developing. This says something about U.S. wine drinkers, who want wine, even if sweet, but not a soft drink.

? Sweet red wine has done all of this without any help from the Winestream Media, which speaks to how little most of us who write about wine understand about what Americans drink.

9 thoughts on “Has sweet red wine taken over the U.S. wine market?

  • By Mike Veseth -

    Nielsen has started publishing data for a Sweet Red Wine category (I found it in Wine Business Monthly), which puts the 52 week sales value at $116 million with a 5.2% growth rate. By comparison, the reported number for Syrah/Shiraz is $161 million and falling at a 12.6% rate.

    That’s a big number even if it is less than the value you report. It depends on how you categorize wines, especially the popular semi-sweet reds.

    My eyeball test is to go to Target or Walmart (or any other large multiple retailer) and look for bottles with black labels and red script or images. That seems to be the signal that the red wine is on the sweet side. The last time I looked there were a couple of dozen wines that passed the eyeball test.

    Conclusion: sweet and semi-sweet red wine is big. The question, as you note, is how big.

  • By Dennis Mitchell -

    If he didn’t include wines such as Caymus Napa Cabernet, Rombauer Zinfandel and Meiomi Pinot Noir, the numbers would be even larger.

  • By Simple Winemaker -

    Oh…sweet red wine?…I thought you were talking about Old Vine Zin!

  • By Rex -

    The average consumer drinks wine as a beverage, not as an accompaniment to food. Soft and smooth. People who try it like it. I never knew what Apothic was until new wine drinkers told me they liked it. Before that they liked merlot, until Sideways killed it.

    • By Simple Winemaker -

      Merlot grown in non varietal places killed Merlot. If Sideways is the reason then it should be commended as now most of those Merlots made in places other than Napa Valley and Sonoma have all been ripped out leaving us with high quality Merlot.

  • By Joel Burt -

    How sweet are we talking? A lot of wines out there are technically dry but have an RS from 5-8 g/L. Are these the ones that you are talking about? There are a lot of reasons why they do this.

    Sugar softens tannins on all of the press wine they are adding into these blends
    Sugar hides defects
    Sugar allows shorter aging and non-traditional red aging (without barrels)
    Some people like sugar
    Conundrum Red comes to mind RS: 7.9g/L

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      The study looked at Apothic-style sweetness, like 1.0 and 1.2 percent RS.

  • By Rick Leopold -

    I would agree with this,but I think I would say reds that are dry ( not bone dry) will do very well now and into the future. Nearly all of our varietal reds fit in this category, and our clients love them. We have found that even when pairing them with food they work nicely. By themselves the fruit forward character combined with subtle oak notes makes them quite popular.

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