Where do Red Blends Come From?

Don’t you wish this was what your child would ask instead of the baby question?!

You may have seen a surge of so-called “red blends” at liquor stores… if you shop here often then probably not, since I nit pick through the masses looking for what I believe are the very best.  But if you don’t happen to shop here regularly, maybe you’ve noticed.  Which begs the question: what does it all mean and where does it all come from?  The short answer is extra juice.  Fortunately, I’m not a believer in short answers, so here’s the low-down.

Red blends are nothing new: Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, Tuscany and others all built their names on their ability to produce high quality wine no matter what perils each vintage brought.  Blending a wine is a way of ensuring quality year after year because different grapes grow well under different conditions.  By diversifying the grapes in a given wine producers could limit the risk of having a really bad vintage, thereby guaranteeing some level of consistency and the return customers that consistent products bring.  Over the years, however, our knowledge of viticulture and winemaking has increased exponentially and to such a degree that even in the worst years it is possible to produce a quality wine through the use of science rather than luck.  With this increase in knowledge it has become less necessary for wineries to blend different varietals together in order to maintain a standard of quality; some still do, even if it’s for the mere sake of tradition, but as the years go by it is becoming more and more unusual.  Where it was once very common to blend some Merlot into a Cabernet Sauvignon to add body it is now more common to wait a bit longer and allow the Cab to ripen until blending is no longer necessary.

So, what does all of this have to do with Red Blends?  Let me explain.

Today’s red blends are a way for wineries to exploit a niche market that is beginning to flourish.  Where Bordeaux and “Old” Napa used blends as a way to enhance a wine, today’s red blends are a way of  dumping unwanted juice.  You see, whenever a new grape becomes trendy big wineries plant vineyards of said new phenom in the hopes that they can profit off its newfound popularity.  Unfortunately, this means that California has plenty of vineyards full of Shiraz from Australia’s heyday, Petite Sirah from the mid-2000s, and even Malbec from just a few years ago.  All of these vines produce juice, which can conveniently be dumped into one vat and labelled as a blend.  This method of mixing juice is cheaper than uprooting a vineyard and replanting, and lets the wineries create any type of flavor profile they want.  This is why wineries are investing time and money into coming up with so-called “lifestyle” wines.

“Lifestyle” wines are exactly what the name implies: wines that reflect a lifestyle.  These wines have catchy names, flashy labels and trendy slogans.  They are meant to entice a potential customer not by the quality of the wine but by the image the label presents.  These are the wines that so many will admit to having bought because of the label and nothing more.  Of course, there is nothing inherently  wrong with this, but it does seem to cheapen what makes wine special in favor of pushing it as a commodity product like Smirnoff Ice.  Wouldn’t it be head-turning to hear about a college party full of kids gulping “Cutesy Brand” wine instead of hard lemonade?

Although this may all sound cynical, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  It will end.  Everyday I see new wines from new exciting regions (Tannat from Uruguay!), or oldies investing money and redefining themselves (Bordeaux is back!).  With the speed at which the industry changes and wineries both new and old having to work harder than ever to stay relevant, I can safely say that the future is looking bright with wonderful, exciting things to come.  May this blog both open a few eyes and bring you all hope!


Nic C

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