I have seen the future, and its name is Apothic. Or Menage a Trois. Or 14 Hands. If you’re a wine professional and you haven’t tasted any of these North American wines, or Extravaganza, from Trapiche in Argentina, I’d recommend that you do so; they herald a seismic change in the wine world.
Thirty years ago, few mainland Europeans acknowledged the notion that varietal wines would ever be anything more than a sideline. The supremacy of regional designations was part of vinous holy writ; why would anyone other than a complete novice or barbarian choose to buy a wine that was simply labelled “Chardonnay” or “Merlot” when they could have one whose terroir was advertised in the form of an AOC, DO or DOC?
That was then; this is now. Even in France, supermarket shoppers are now voting with their wallets as growing numbers load varietal IGP and Vin de France bottles and bag-in-boxes into their trolleys.But just as a new generation of the French belatedly begins to climb onto the varietal train that first began to roll in the California of the 1970s, the Americans have moved on, to embrace another trend that threatens both regional and varietal labelling. Even five years ago, most US professionals would have questioned the suggestion that one could build a substantial market for premium-price wines simply labeled as “Winemaker’s Blend” or “Red Blend”. Where, in a US market where wines are ranged by their grape variety, would any such bottles sit on the shelf? And how would consumers know what to expect when making their their first purchase?
The answer lies in powerful branding and muscular distribution. Apothic is made by Gallo; Cupcake and Extravaganza are distributed by the Wine Group; 14 Hands is a Chateau Ste Michelle brand while Menage a Trois comes from Trinchero.
These wines are all among the fastest growing brands in the US; they declare no grape variety on their main label, they are crowd-pleasingly mellow, with residual sugar levels of up to 16g/litre. And they are sufficiently luxuriously packaged to warrant prices that are higher than many of the same companies’ Chardonnays and Merlots. It is no accident that everything about them has more in common with a box of chocolates than with a traditional wine. They are bottles that many non wine-enthusiasts will feel happy about taking to a friend’s dinner party.
Until now most of the established wine opinion-formers have made little or no mention of the new arrivals. Indeed, it is far easier to find lengthy articles on “natural” wines produced in tiny quantities and of little general commercial relevance than to see any reference to wines that are now selling by the million. When they do address the issue, they make no secret of their abhorrence for the very idea of what they see as “cynical”, “tricked up” wines. Tim Atkin MW, a leading UK critic probably spoke for many of his peers when he described Apothic as “vile” and the “Coca Cola of wine” in a recent exchange of views on Twitter.
In this last comment, Atkin was unconsciously making a more valid point than he perhaps imagined. While he and his fellow critics find fascination in the subtle or marked variation between vintages and cuvées, most consumers see wine in much the same way that they see gin and beer and Coca Cola, all of which offer consistency of style and flavour.
Like Coke and gin, the new wave of blends are carefully assembled so as to please as many consumers and to be as replicable as possible. And, like Coke, they cleverly exploit the satisfying effect that can be achieved by balancing significant levels of sugar and acidity.
So far, the blend-trend has been more or less limited to producers in North and South America. Australian, New Zealand and South African winemakers, like their European counterparts are surprisingly frightened of making “commercial” (aka sweet) wines. In Australia, Yellow Tail, is still more derided than praised for taking the Californians on and beating them on their own turf with sales that are still over 8m cases and growing.
The reasons I believe these wines to be game-changers is firstly their premium pricing – which allow sufficient margin to permit serious brand-building of the kind associated with beers and spirits – and second, the fact that they could be practicably produced in a wide range of countries. Just as Guinness and Stella Artois are brewed across the globe, it would be quite credible for the sweet blends to be replicated using grapes grown in Spain, Italy, France or Eastern Europe.
Apart from Gallo, which only uses US grapes for its US brands, almost all of the bigger Californian producers already unashamedly source fruit globally. There’s no reason to suppose that they would not do so for the blends – especially if it would enable them to make the first non-sparkling wines that really justify being described as high volume global brands.