They seem to be everywhere these days: red wines whose labels bear a fanciful name (think The Spur or Wildebeest) instead of the name of a grape variety.
Red blends are a hot category in wine these days, with sales up more than 10 percent compared to a year ago. Red blends accounted for 40 percent of all new wines introduced over the past two years, according to the Beverage Media Group.
A lot of traditional European wines, red and white, have always been blends. Some examples from France would be Bordeaux or Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But in this country, varietally labeled wines -- wines labeled as cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, for example -- became the norm by the 1970s. The varietal name was seen as a mark of quality, compared with generic California blends labeled as burgundy, chablis and the like.
The labeling landscape started to shift as U.S. wine consumers became more sophisticated. Wineries introduced Bordeaux-style blends, sometimes called "Meritage," featuring cabernet sauvignon mixed with grapes such as merlot, cabernet franc and malbec. Rhone-style blends -- usually some mixture of grenache and syrah and perhaps small amounts of other grapes -- followed.
But the new blends don't follow the traditional recipes. A little of everything gets thrown into the vat. Zinfandel might be blended with malbec, syrah with cabernet franc. It allows the producer to use odds and ends that don't go into the regular blend. Shadowbrook Winery in Walnut Creek makes an affordable, tasty blend like this called Encore ($18). Such blends also provide a home for grape varieties that aren't selling very well, like syrah and merlot.
In many cases, the blends are targeted at millennial consumers. Research shows they don't care about seeing a grape variety on the label and are more likely to experiment.
Although the red blends I'm recommending are dry or very nearly dry, some of the most successful and visible red blends are sweet. That presents a problem for consumers who prefer their wines dry, because there's often no indication on the label. Apothic Red, Ménage à Trois and Cupcake Red Velvet are three of the most popular sweetish reds, but there are plenty of others. Back labels often include descriptions with code words like smooth, fruity and luscious.
The Beverage Media Group singles out zinfandel as being a popular foundation for easy-to-drink red blends, dry or otherwise. A good example at a bargain price is the 2013 Bogle Essential Red ($13), whose zinfandel component is evident in its lively berry fruit and notes of tobacco and spice. The 2013 Clayhouse Adobe Red ($14), a blend of mostly petite sirah and zin from Paso Robles, is quite fruity, with berry, spice and nice freshness.
Zin also figures in a couple of more serious -- and pricier -- Sonoma County blends. The 2012 Roth Estate Heritage ($30) — which contains an assortment of red grapes, led by zin and malbec -- displays lively berry, some spicy oak, and medium weight and tannins. And the 2012 Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Cinema ($39), which is based on cab and zin, offers lively red berry and spice with a hint of tobacco and medium tannins.
Paso Robles is a source for a number of red blends, like the 2012 Ancient Peaks Renegade ($24), a mix of mostly syrah and malbec that's spicy and full-bodied, with blackberry, notes of wild herbs and white pepper and firm but approachable tannins. Or there's the 2013 Chronic Cellars Sofa King Bueno ($20), which is mostly petite sirah and syrah; it's a great pizza wine, with bright berry and spice. From Livermore Valley, the 2012 Murrieta's Well The Spur ($25) also contains a lot of petite sirah, along with cab and petit verdot; it's full-bodied, with robust berry, a hint of mint and firm tannins.
Buty Winery in Washington state produces an interesting blend under its second label, Beast. The 2012 Beast Wildebeest ($25) is mostly syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon; it has plenty of spicy cherry, a hint of earth and medium weight and tannins. Another Washington producer, Three Rivers, makes a blend called River's Red; the 2013 ($14) is nearly half sangiovese and displays plump red cherry and spice and medium tannins.
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of my favorite red blends are the traditional Rhone-style wines. Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles makes several; the most affordable is the 2013 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas ($20), which displays ripe yet lively berry with some spice and fine tannins.
There are also a number of good red Rhone blends from Santa Barbara County. The 2012 Kita Spe'y ($30), for example, a blend of grenache, syrah and carignane, has ample lively strawberry fruit accented by spice, a hint of violet and firm but approachable tannins. And Qupe makes a blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache called Los Olivos Cuvee and recently introduced a new blend with similar grapes, the 2013 A Modern Red ($17). The latter is bright and easy to drink, with raspberry and strawberry and a soft finish.