Sweet Red Wine?
By Linda Murphy

Sweet red wine?  Yuck, you might say.

I certainly don’t drink it, nor do many of my wine writing colleagues or friends, yet red wines produced with 2 to 10 percent residual sugar in them are, along with also-sweet Moscato, the largest-growing wine categories in the U.S., according to Nielsen Company.  Nielsen, which tracks sales nationwide in grocery stores, reported sales of 350,000 cases of sweet red wine in 2011, an increase of 202 percent from 2010 (calculations are based on sales in grocery stores).  SymphonyIRI Group independently reported that more than 500,000 cases of sweet red wine were sold in the States in 2011. 

In 2012, Nielsen said, the boom in sweet red wine sales continued:  For the 13 weeks ending 3 March, 2012, sweet reds grew 142 percent over the same period last year (although the numbers are based on a relatively small production base).

Just like California White Zinfandel of the late ’80s and 1990s, Lambrusco of the 1980s, Mateus and Lancers of the 1970s, and fortified wines of the 1950s and ’60s, consumers have found sweet wines to be a gateway to wine enjoyment.  I’m not talking about the great dessert wines such as Port, Madeira, Sauternes or Vin Santo, but rather unfortified table wines produced from vitis vinifera, Concord and hybrid grapes,and fruits other than grapes, and meant to be consumed as a cocktail or at the table, and not with the dessert course.

Yellow Tail’s Sweet Red Roo … E. & J. Gallo’s Apothic and Barefoot Sweet Red … Cupcake’s Red Velvet … Adler Fels’ Totally Random Red … these relatively new wines, packaged in 750-ml bottles rather than jugs or boxes, have become ubiquitous in supermarkets, selling at prices of around $10 to those who, marketers say, are novice wine drinkers, weaned on Coca Cola, Pepsi or sweet tea, young folks (21 to 30) who are eager to try new things, females, bargain-seekers, and various combinations of these traits.

They are attracted by the “smooth” taste – an adjective often used on the wines’ labels – a non-tannic, not-bitter palate impression that is created by the softening presence of sugar and absence of crunch acidity. 

The sweetness can come from the addition of cane sugar, corn syrup or grape concentrate, or they can be made simply by halting the fermentation of grapes at the desired level of sweetness.  And producing this style of wine is a cash cow.  Wineries can use grapes that don’t make the quality cut for their higher-priced, dry wines, and buy inexpensive lots of bulk wine and blend them together before sweetening them up.  Sweet red wines don’t require costly oak barrels and aren’t aged for any period of time; they are basically bottled and shipped, with a quick profit return, while a quality Cabernet Sauvignon might rest in the cellar for three years before shipping to market, the winery all that while paying taxes and for floor space as the wine ages. 

The sound of sweet red is ka-ching.

Aussie brand Yellow Tail’s U.S. importer, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, launched Sweet Red Roo, a Shiraz-based blend, in March 2012.  It claims that Roo is a cut above some of its competitors in flavor impression. 

“[It’s] the nexus of two categories on fire with consumers right now -- sweet wine and red blends,” said Francois Magnant, Yellow Tail brand director.  “Whereas others in the category taste candy-like or almost artificially sweet, Sweet Red Roo gets it sweet wine taste naturally from ripe fruit.”

California’s post-White Zinfandel sweet-wine production began later than most.  Winemakers in the East, South and Midwest have long found fans for their off-dry-to-sweet wines, produced from hybrid and native grape varieties, and every other fruit in the basket.  One of the earliest adaptors of sweet wines from a vinifera growing area was Llano Estacado in Lubbock, Texas.  The state has its own share of dry-wine-drinking consumers, yet another segment seeks a sweeter wine, and one that presumably would go great with barbecue and the sauce that often goes with it.

In 2004, Llano Estacado introduced Llano Sweet Red, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Ka-ching!  It was first produced by Sonoma County’s Adler Fels as a private label for the Texas market, and now has wide distribution through the Longhorn State.  Like many sweet reds, it’s non-vintage, and bears an “American” appellation on the label.  That means the grapes, juice or bulk wine can come from anywhere in the country.

So much for terroir expression, eh?

A problem with these wines, other than their cloying taste to those accustomed to drinking dry wines, is that there is rarely an indication on the label of just how sweet the wine is.  The Llano, for example, has 8 percent residual sugar, putting it in the dessert wine category if it were to be entered in a competition.  This information can be found on the winery’s website.  Totally Random’s typical sugar level is 5 to 6 percent, and Apothic is drier, balanced with firm acidity which cuts some of the sweetness.  It’s easy for unknowing consumers to purchase a sweet red that is either not as sweet, or too sweet, as they expected.

Package design is crucial for this category, with eye-catching labels required to entice first-time buyers.  The words “smooth,” “delicious,” even the brands’ names -- take Diageo’s Cherry On Top, for instance -- are enough to get lips a-smacking before the bottle is in the shopping card.  

Who cares if sweet red wines that remind me of Hawaiian Punch capture the palates of wine drinkers?  They are not made for critics or wine geeks, but for regular folks who know what they want to drink, and should have access to it. 

If consumers embrace Totally Random Red and Barefoot Sweet Red, and never move on to drier wine styles, bully for them.  Yet if they Apothic or Llano Sweet Red leads them to exploring other, perhaps more sophisticated wines, their vinous world will become infinitely larger -- and exploring that world is half of the fun of appreciating wine.

Back in the day, I started with Boone’s Farm, graduated to Lancers in college, then moved on to White Zin.  Look where that path got me -- for better or worse!