Sweet red wine, part I
This is the first of two parts looking at sweet red wine, which could become as important to the wine business as white zinfandel once was. Today, a sweet red overview. Part II, which looks at sweet reds and what they taste like, posted Feb. 20.
Moscato is getting all of the attention, and no one — not even the Wine Curmudgeon — would argue that it’s not the latest wine craze. It’s difficult to argue with those sales numbers, even if there are a lot of caveats.
But that doesn’t mean moscato is the next big thing, like white zinfandel used to be. Dig deeper, though, past the moment, and you’ll see the trend that has the potential to not only turn into the next fad, but to significantly change the wine business in the United States. It’s sweet red wine, something that even the most dollar-grubbing producers have always been a little ashamed of.
But be ashamed no more. Sweet red wines are racking up sales, and producers big and small are launching sweet reds. E&J Gallo’s Apothic was one of the best sellers in the $8-$11 category last year, while Beringer — which knows a thing or two about sweet wine — expects to sell one-half million cases of its red moscato this year.
“Sweet red wine is very relevant to the marketplace,” says Shawn Bavaresco, who directs brand development for the company that makes Pacific Rim riesling and which sells Sweet Bliss, which has a sweet red. “We’ve seen the demand, so we’re going to be very responsive. We want to be out front on this.”
Sweet red Sweet red wine has been such a pariah in the U.S. wine business that white zinfandel seems like a first-growth Bordeaux in comparison. I asked one respected winemaker, hardly a traditionalist himself, about sweet red wine, and he just rolled his eyes.
Sweet red was traditionally the province of Kosher wines like Manischewitz and Mogen David (insert joke here). Even today, when Constellation Brands is the second biggest wine company in the world, people still make cracks about its beginnings as an upstate New York winery called Canandaigua that did sweet red wine.
Real wine drinkers don’t drink sweet red wine, as any number of real wine drinkers will tell you.
That perspective is changing quickly. Sweet red sales, says Nielsen, grew 172 1/2 percent in the 13 weeks ending Jan. 7, which was even faster than moscato’s increase. Yes, some of the same caveats that apply to moscato apply here, like big growth from a small base. But there is more going on than that.
Sweet red wine is relatively easy to make and can be made with almost any red grapes (or white grapes, for that matter). This is in contrast to a varietal wine like moscato, which needs a grape that is in short supply. And the people buying sweet red are women and the other demographic that marketers crave — the Millennials, who will soon replace the Baby Boomers as the most important consumer demographic in the country. (If they haven’t already.) And they seem be part of the group that continues to elude the wine business — beginning wine drinkers.
“Why is everyone so surprised that Millennials, who drink Coke for breakfast, would want to drink sweet wine?” says Barry Sheridan, vice president of marketing for Treasury Wine Estates, which owns Beringer.
So how did sweet red go from pariah to favorite in just a couple of years? Talk to different people, and you’ll get different explanations. But the one consistent seems to be the recession, which knocked so many producers down (and even a couple out). Sweet red wine doesn’t require expensive grapes, because the wine’s sweetness masks any flaws that cheaper, bulk grapes might have. So sweet red can be sold for the lower prices that consumers embraced during the recession.
Meanwhile, restoring margins and revenue that went away during the recession will go a long toward placating anyone still embarrassed about making and selling sweet red.
And, as Sheridan, noted, it’s not a difficult sell to a demographic that likes sweets. It’s also telling that Pacific Rim’s sweetest wine accounted for 70 percent of riesling sales over the last two vintages — an amazing figure given that much of the wine business seems to go out of its way to convince consumers that sweet wine isn’t something they want to buy. Imagine how much sweet red the business can sell if it makes an effort and produces professionally made wine.