Commodity wines 5 of 6

Branding wine varietals—selling the name of the grape—is marketing breakthrough that elevated American, then world, wine consumption to levels enjoyed today.

Single varietal labeling, however, has limitations. Many of the most delicious wines are blends of two or more grapes. If 75 percent of a bottle is one grape, then U.S. producer can label it with varietal name. But if no grape provides 75 percent, then U.S. rules require the name be “red wine”—evoking images of plonk in a jug or the stuff your eccentric uncle makes in his tool shed. Plus, as wine consumers grew more sophisticated, they recognized the beneficial balancing begotten by blending.

Marketers for commodity wine makers manufactured solutions. If the consumer didn’t know the difference between Margaux and Haut-Médoc (Margaux is a first-growth Bordeaux village, Haut-Médoc a lesser growth general Bordeaux area), they know they enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon; they know they enjoy Merlot. So, makers label Bordeaux-esque blends “Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot.”

Many such labels are found on 1.5 liter bottles (magnum size, equivalent of two standard 750 ml bottles). Such offerings can serve as training-wheel introductions to more sophisticated wine blends. They also provide value—drinkable wine you can afford to pour at your party without fear of shame or snide comments box wine sometimes evokes from ungracious guests.

Consumer wines, varietal mix recommendations:

• Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot. Value label of Concha y Toro—Latin America’s largest producer. Bordeaux blend, fruity, drinkable. 1.5-liter. $9.50.

• Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (Bordeaux blend), Shiraz-Grenach (Rhone blend), Shiraz-Cabernet (Aussie blend). All serviceable if not sophisticated; made to please American tastes, especially beginning wine drinkers. All 1.5-liters. All $12.

• Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet. Australia’s largest wine brand. Not as spicy as Shiraz, not as woody and tannic as Cab; smooth drinking, affordable. 1.5 liters. $15

• Penfolds Koonunga Hills Shiraz-Cabernet. Fleshy fruit, fine tannins. Smooth tasting value wine that often scores serious ratings with wine critics. 750 ml. $11

• Yalumba Shiraz-Viognier. Aussie version of Côte-Rôtie (northernmost Rhone wine region). Red fruits you expect from Shiraz; medium-to-full body; fragrance and sweetness from the splash Viognier. 750 ml. $11.50