Tag Archives: sweet red wine

It’s red wine, isn’t it? So enough with the sugar already

sweet red wineSweet red wine: It’s time for the wine business to admit it’s sugaring up our red wine and passing it off as dry.

The Wine Curmudgeon has been writing a wine of the week on Wednesday, alternating red and white, for as long as I have been doing the blog. But we almost didn’t have a wine of the week two days ago. Call it my aversion to phony sweet red wine.

I tasted almost a dozen reds from California, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and France to find something to write about. No luck: Most of them weren’t very good and some of them were hideous, a recent trend. What was worse is that more than half of them were sweet. Yes, sweet red wine – as in enough residual sugar so that my mouth had that cotton candy feeling after I finished tasting.

It’s one thing to taste so much bad wine; that’s the burden I accepted when I took on cheap wine. But that the wines are sweet, in addition to poorly made, is a new horror, and one that I refuse to accept.

Red wine, unless it’s labeled as such, is not supposed to be sweet. If it is, it’s Kosher. Or Lambrusco. And that’s fine. I have nothing against sweet red wine, and have enjoyed all sorts over my wine drinking career. But that the wine business – and Big Wine is not the only culprit here – has decided to “smooth” dry red wine by extreme winemaking or sweetening (sugar or white grape juice or whatever, depending on the law in the country where the wine is made) is a travesty. And I refuse to accept it.

Why is this happening? It’s a combination of things, based on the idea that labeling red wine as sweet is death in the marketplace. Didn’t the wine business spend 30 years telling us that the only people who drank sweet wine were crazy old ladies with cats? So we get “red blends” that are hugely sweet but are sold as dry to appeal to the rest of us. And that are flooding store shelves.

Consider:

• The idea that there is an “American palate,” in which we won’t drink something unless it has enough sugar to make us cry rock candy tears. This makes me crazy, since most wine in the U.S. is dry and has been for decades. And everyone made a lot of money over the past 30 years selling dry wine.

• Copy cat marketing. E&J Gallo’s Apothic, the first legitimate sweet red blend, is a huge seller. So everyone else has to have their version of Apothic.

• The cynicism that has become part of doing business in the 21st century. We’re not wine drinkers to them; we’re vast hordes of focus groups to be manipulated in search of profit. This story bears repeating: A former Proctor & Gamble executive once told me he could get a focus group to do anything he wanted – which, he said, was the point of focus groups.

So be warned, wine business. I won’t mention any names now. I’ll give you one more chance. But know that from now on: If the wine is sweet, and you don’t label it sweet, I’m calling you out. I’ll have a permanent post here, listing the wines. And yes, I’m just one cranky wine writer. But we have to start somewhere.

Barefoot wine review 2017

Barefoot wine review 2018: Rich Red Blend, Barefoot Bubbly

Barefoot wine review 2018Barefoot wine review 2018: Rich Red Blend shows Big Wine at its best, while Barefoot Bubbly does just the opposite

Nothing changed with the Barefoot wine review 2018 from the 2017 version. The brand remains maddeningly inconsistent — no guarantee that its products will taste the same from year to year. This is a huge problem, since Barefoot is non-vintage wine and there aren’t supposed to be vintage differences. But E&J Gallo makes so much of it (almost 20 million cases, more than the production of almost every winery in the U.S.) that quality control, apparently, is not what it should be.

The good news first: The Rich Red Blend ($5, purchased, 13%) is a quality sweet red wine that tastes exactly like the back label says it does. In fact, there’s a chart on the back label, modeled after the International Riesling Foundation effort, saying just how sweet the wine is. It’s a welcome development given how many sweet red wines are on the market that pretend not to be sweet.

The Rich Red blend is not as sweet as the Cupcake Red Velvet — closer to the Bogle Essential Red. Look for the cherry, chocolate, and vanilla flavors that are the hallmark of these wines, but also notice the tannins. Yes, tannins in a sweet wine, in an attempt at balance. And it mostly works. And yes, there is a tremendous amount of winemaking going on to get that not especially wine-like combination of flavors. But no one pretends Barefoot makes terroir-driven wines.

The less said about the Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee ($8, purchased, 10.5%), the better. When it’s right, it’s an enjoyable bottle of cheap sparking wine that’s easy to recommend. When it’s wrong, as it was this time, about the only thing you can do is pour it down the drain. My experience: It’s  50-50 whether the wine will be drinkable. This time, the Barefoot Bubbly was flat, and barely popped when I took the cork off. Was this a winemaking problem? Was this a supply chain problem —  stored in a hot distributor warehouse after sitting in a hot truck after sitting in a hot supplier warehouse? Either way, it was a waste of $8 that I could have spent on a Spanish cava.

More about Barefoot wine:
Barefoot wine review 2017
Barefoot wine review 2016
Barefoot wine review 2015

Barefoot wine review 2017

Barefoot wine review 2017Barefoot wine review 2017: The sweet red shows Big Wine at its best, while the sauvignon blanc reminds us why Barefoot is so inconsistent

The Barefoot wine review 2017 shows why Barefoot will soon be the best-selling wine brand in the U.S., as well as why so many of its wines are so inconsistently irritating – and difficult for me to write nice things about.

This year, I tasted the Barefoot sweet red ($6, purchased, 10.5%) and sauvignon blanc ($6, purchased, 13%), and the difference between the two illustrates my point. The first is Big Wine at its best – a well-made sweet red that isn’t too sweet, too fruity, or too dirty, and a wine I would buy for someone who likes sweet red. The sauvignon blanc, on the other hand, was thin and almost reedy – a sign of poor quality grapes chosen because they were cheap and not because they added anything to the wine.

The Barefoot sweet red smells like cherry grape juice, but there isn’t much cherry left when you taste it. What fruit there is resembles grape Nehi, but not in a bad way. In this, there’s less acidity than grape juice, and no tannins, either, even though the wine would be better if it had more of the first and some of the latter. That would give it more balance and a brightness that the best sweet reds have. The irony? The the sweet red approaches balance anyway, and even the Big Guy (who tasted the wines with me) was impressed with its quality. The sweet red is California appellation and non-vintage.

The Big Guy was especially annoyed with the sauvignon blanc ($6, purchased, 13%), given that it takes a lot to ruin sauvignon blanc. But that happened here – this was thin and annoying and unripe, and nowhere near Bogle or McManis. It smelled almost grassy, as California sauvignon blanc should, but that was it. In this, I have rarely tasted a well-made Barefoot sauvignon blanc. The wine was non-vintage.

Finally, a word about the stickers most Barefoot wines carry boasting of medals. Ignore them. Most Barefoot wines are non-vintage, so when the sticker says the wine won a medal in 2012 (sweet red) and 2014 (sauvignon blanc), the wines with the sticker almost certainly weren’t the wines entered in the competition.

More about Barefoot wine:
Barefoot wine review 2016
Barefoot wine review 2015
Barefoot wine: Why it’s so popular

 

Wine of the week: Bogle Essential Red 2014

Bogle essential redThe Bogle Essential Red is the most rare of wines — a sweet red made to taste like wine

Know two things about this wine: First, it’s a sweet red, and second, most of the sweet reds I’ve tasted – and I’ve tasted a lot – have not been worth drinking, even for people who want sweet red wine. So why is the Bogle Essential Red the wine of the week?

Because, somehow, the Bogle Essential Red ($10, sample, 13.5%) tastes like wine, and not better living through chemistry. The extra residual sugar is part of the wine and not its reason for being, which happens about as often as I write the cover story for the Wine Spectator. If anything, it won’t be sweet enough for people expecting a Cupcake Red Velvet sort of wine.

So how did Bogle do this? First, the winemakers kept the residual sugar to what seems like .9 percent, not much more than the level for dry wine and enough less than the RS for a wine like Apothic Red so that there is a noticeable difference. Second, since the Essential Red is made like wine, the winemakers didn’t take out the acidity and the tannins or add chocolate-flavored fake oak, so that it is both sweet and balanced. Plus, it has varietal character – you can taste the cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel in the four grape blend.

All of this makes it drinkable in a way that most sweet reds aren’t – a softer wine but not wine that is too soft. Highly recommended, but what else should we expect from Bogle?

Finally, I tasted this with the 14.5 percent Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel, a dry but jammy, very ripe wine made in the Lodi style, and it seemed sweeter than the Essential Red. Go figure.

Winebits 411: Wine prices, Chinese wine, red blends

wine prices ? Expensive wine prices: Or, as S. Irene Virbila wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a look at old Kermit Lynch newsletters finds a “…breathtaking change in wine prices over the years. Over the course of three decades or more, prices go up, of course. But 10 times in some cases?” Lynch is the celebrated importer whose name on a French wine label is reason to buy it regardless of varietal or region, and Virblia has tracked price changes for several of his wines since the early 1980s with depressing results. Given that cheap wine prices have not increased 10 times over 30 years (maybe doubled, at most) and that the cost of wine production has remained remarkably stable over that time, this speaks to the increased demand for high-end wines since then, and especially for wines with pedigrees from experts like Lynch.

? So long, China: Remember when China was going to save the French wine business? Not now, says the Reuters news service. “Now wine is being sold below cost, some is going bad sitting for long periods in poorly maintained warehouses and decent Bordeaux wines are going for 15 yuan [US$2.50] a bottle.” Not that the Wine Curmudgeon warned the French about this, that raising prices to gouge the inexperienced Chinese had dangerous long-term consequences — but what do I know? The Chinese market has been hit by what passes for a recession there as well as the government’s continuing crackdown on corruption, in which wine bribes play a huge part. By the way, those “decent” Bordeaux wines that are selling for $2.50 in China cost 10 times that much in the U.S.

? Red blends take over: The popularity of red blends — which means, in most cases, sweet red wine — continues to rise, reports Nielsen. They accounted for more than 13 percent of the $13 billion that consumers spent on table wine during the 52 weeks ended Sept. 12, 2015, up from 11 percent in 2011. How important is that change? As I have written before, it’s almost unprecedented, with red blends the third biggest seller in the U.S. behind chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in U.S. grocery and super stores. Interestingly, the Nielsen report doesn’t use the word sweet to describe the red blends, since so many producers don’t identify the wines as such. But we know what’s going on, don’t we?

Update: Sweet red wine is taking over the U.S.

sweet red wineThe surprising thing about this month’s sweet red wine post is how muted the reaction was. Hardly anyone seemed surprised. Dismayed maybe, or irritated, but not especially surprised. That’s because the people who follow these things had an idea it was going on, and those who don’t — like most of the Winestream Media — don’t consider it important enough to be surprised.

And the wine drinkers buying all that sweet red? They weren’t surprised, dismayed, or irritated. They’re just happy someone is making wine they enjoy. Or, as a 30-something woman told me about her favorite sweet red, Cupcake’s Red Velvet: “It’s really good, and it’s really about the only red wine I like.”

The one thing most everyone agreed on? That the numbers, though imprecise, offered a real sense of how big sweet red has become — the fifth biggest category in U.S. wine sales, behind chardonnay, cabernet sauvignion, pinot noir, and merlot. Given its momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sweet red pass merlot for fourth in the next couple of years.

So it’s not a coincidence that red blends accounted for 40 percent of all new wines over the past two years, compared to just 18 percent for chardonnay and cabernet combined, according to Beverage Media magazine. Yes, not all red blends are sweet, but sweet reds are at least two-thirds of red blends, based on data in the first post. This is another sign of how important sweet red has become.

How sweet is sweet? About 1.0 or 1.2 percent residual sugar, compared to less than .08 residual sugar for dry red wines. Other highlights in the wake of the first story, combined with additional reporting that I did:

• Consumers don’t necessarily see sweet red as sweet, says Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, who has probably studied this subject more than anyone in the country. ” ‘Sweet’ is not an attribute that large numbers of regular consumers use with regards to these wines,” he said. “They are more apt to regard them as flavorful or smooth or interesting. Many consumers jump back and forth between dryer and sweeter versions of these wines.”

• The wine industry remains uneasy about calling a sweet wine sweet, says Miller. “It’s possible that some of these companies have tested adding the word sweet to the label or description, and found it harmful. On the other hand, based on my experience in the wine industry, the number of decisions based on gut instinct, trade notions, or small unrepresentative samples is surprisingly high, even among large MBA-ish companies.”

• Since sweet red doesn’t depend on appellation or specific grapes, it can be made with fruit from anywhere in California, Or, as wine economist and author Mike Vesteth told me, sweet red can be made with all the merlot and syrah that wouldn’t be sold otherwise, and which costs less to use. Hence higher profit margins than more traditional wines.

Finally, no one — not even anyone at E&J Gallo, whose Apothic started all of this — expected sweet red to do this well. Gallo, I have been told, developed Apothic to appeal to Millennials, to compete with the Menage a Trois red, and to earn supermarket shelf space. That it might change U.S. wine never really occurred to anyone.

For more about sweet red wine:
The ultimate Internet guide to sweet red wine
What’s next for sweet red wine?
Wine terms: Sweet vs. fruity

 

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.