Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sweet and seductive

California red blends aren't sophisticated, but they have undeniable appeal and marketing clout

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More than ever, people are looking for authenticity in their food, be it 100-mile diets, diverse restaurants with flavours from all over the globe or increasingly available exotic ingredients for cooking.

There's been a push for similarly global-but-regional emphasis in wine. Australia ran a "Regional Heroes" campaign in 2011, highlighting the differences between regions like the cooler Mornington Peninsula and warmer Barossa Valley. Ontario's sub-appellations continue to expand, highlighting the differences from, for example, Riesling from the Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

So what, then, to make of the glut of sweet, jammy California red blends that continue to gain shelf space at Liquor Marts and private wine stores? Why are these wines so bloody popular?

It starts with marketing. Many of these $12-$25 California red blends sport catchy/provocative names and graphics: Apothic, Bear Flag, The Big Red Monster, Menage Trois, Red Velvet, Purple Cowboy, Primal Roots, etc. For the budding red wine drinker -- clearly the target market -- the California section of their local shop is less intimidating than a section like France or Italy.

These wines often don't tell you the grape varieties used, nor do they specify a region other than "California." Flavour-wise, these wines bring a number of similar characteristics that appeal to the red wine neophyte's palate -- super-ripe fruit, a dollop of sweetness, and little to no mouth-drying tannin.

To me these wines taste manufactured -- like someone made wine out of store-bought grape juice or grape Kool-Aid rather than crushing or pressing actual fruit at a winery.

I don't fault people for liking these wines: The sweet fruit is seductive, the names/labels are attractive, and they're consistently made. In fact, many don't sport a vintage year so that grapes from different years can be blended together to retain that same flavour.

I love the increasing diversity and authenticity in food, and I love it even more in wine. These California red blends mute the hard work winemakers are doing in that state to reflect their regional differences.

Different strokes for different folks -- or, perhaps more appropriately, que sera Syrah.

-- -- --

I grabbed a few New World red blends, tasted them blind, and was able to pick out the California wines pretty easily. No scores this week.

Twitter: @bensigurdson

Heartland 2010 Stickleback Red (South Australia -- $13.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon-Dolcetto-Lagrein blend (yeah, those last two are a bit obscure), the Heartland red isn't too dark in colour, with loads of cherries and blackberries as well as licorice, herbal, mint and earthy notes supporting both on the nose and the palate. It's a decent wine (my second-favourite this week) for the price that's probably ready for a vintage refresh. If you've dug out your barbecue, this would work well with pretty much anything you're willing to throw on there.

Rosewood 2011 Long Rows Red (Niagara Peninsula, Ont. -- $15.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

New to Manitoba, this blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc shows up-front floral, blueberry, plum and cocoa aromas, with a quick hit of earth and bell pepper in there. It's a plush, medium-bodied red that's definitely Merlot-driven, with pretty blueberry, plum and black tea notes as well as a hint of earthy complexity from the Pinot Noir. This is the wine I'd drink first out of these four -- it's fruity yet elegant and with great character.

PromisQous NV Red (California -- around $20, private wine stores)

Some sleuthing revealed 42 per cent of this Zinfandel-based California blend comes from the Lodi region and 15 per cent of the overall wine saw barrel aging. It's got that deep raisin and blackberry aromas common in Zinfandel but with a chocolate milk note and some confected vanilla and ash as well. It's quite sweet on the full-bodied palate, with soft, dark, almost-candied/dried berry flavours and not much else. If you're a fan of the Apothic and its counterparts, you'll like this -- although there's not much difference between the two, so why pay more for this? If it sounds up your alley, I picked it up at Calabria Market.

Conundrum 2010 Red (California -- $25.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

The Wagner family (makers of California heavyweights Caymus and Belle Glos) have ridden the success of the delicious Conundrum white blend to great heights, and I imagine they hope to do the same with the relatively new red. The website says this is a proprietary "non-traditional blend of red grapes" -- that's it. Darkest in colour of the four, the nose is a doozy: it's like someone took soft, ripe, dark berries and clove, dunked them in marmalade and made wine out of it. There's a pronounced orange-peel/spice note on the palate out front of the big jammy, somewhat-sweet berries, and some fine tannin on the finish. It's a thoroughly confusing wine -- if I tasted it blindfolded I might think it's a white wine. Strange.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 E4

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