When Enovation Brands began planning the launch of the Dolce Rosso offering from Voga Italia, the team knew the brand needed a point of differentiation. The sweet red blend hit the national market last October as one of a growing number of sweet red table wines vying for distributor and consumer attention. “We’re catching a wave, following a path that brands like Apothic and Ménage à Trois built for us,” says David Lazarus, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Enovation Brands. “We’re all jumping on board, so the key becomes how to separate from the pack. Being Italian is one way we can differentiate ourselves. And everyone is coming up with catchy names, so we tried to make it a little bit sexier with Dolce Rosso.”
Red Blends Rise
Over the past several years, red blends have made huge inroads in the United States, and more recently, sweet red blends and single-varietal offerings have made a smaller but vibrant splash. Many of the sweeter-style wines are labeled as such, including Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz, Barefoot Sweet Red and Yellow Tail Sweet Red Roo. Other brands hint at their sweeter side, such as Constellation’s Pop Crush or the various Red Moscatos that have gained popularity.
Then there are the reds that have a slightly sweet taste profile, though producers might not classify them as such. Consumers may not even be cognizant of their sweetness. Yet the wines have broad appeal, especially among younger consumers.
Dan Davis, wine director at the Commander’s Palace restaurant in New Orleans, says his clientele consumes quite a bit of sweetish red wine—mostly Italian wines that are inherently sweet. “It’s rare to see consumers sitting down in the restaurant, calling over a sommelier and asking for a sweet red wine,” Davis notes. “That said, I think we probably pour more sweet reds than anyone else in the state because I always offer these wines by the glass and pair them with fun dishes.” The Naufragar Malvasia di Casorzo from Piedmont ($8 a glass) does particularly well.
Mass-market sweet red wines—which are primarily but not exclusively produced in the United States—have some presence on wine lists, especially at casual restaurant chains, but these offerings generally garner the lion’s share of their business from the off-premise. Depending on their customer mix, retailers have sharply different experiences.
Jennifer Laurie, sommelier at the three Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace stores in southeastern Michigan, welcomes all the different varieties of red blends. “In Michigan, what we’re finding is that wines with softer tannins—those that are a little bit more fruit-driven—are selling well,” Laurie says. “Sweet reds are really on the rise.” But customers at Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, Colorado, are eschewing the “sweet” moniker while embracing other red blends. Red wines labeled as sweet “don’t do a lot for us,” Wilbur’s owner Dave Schierling says, noting that his clientele tends to be a bit more discerning about wines. “Wines like Ménage à Trois and Apothic are flying off the shelves. I perceive them to be sweeter wines, but customers don’t view them as sweet.”
Sweeter red wines are broadly seen as a way to transition younger consumers from soft drinks, beer or cocktails into the world of wine. Sweet reds also have a separate audience of older drinkers who have always favored sweet wines, but marketers see real opportunity with younger consumers. “The goal here is to provide a stepping stone in order to transition the consumer into a more evolved profile and into much larger categories,” says Peter Deutsch, CEO of Yellow Tail importer Deutsch Family Wines & Spirits. “That path is the normal journey of most wine drinkers, and there’s no question that the younger consumers are getting into the wine category via sweet drinks.”
Stephanie Gallo, vice president of marketing at E&J Gallo Winery, says sweet styles help “democratize” wines. She notes that due to their flavor profile, sweet red wines are attracting new consumers and incremental purchases within the wine category.
Kevin Hart, beverage director at the three-concept Boca Restaurant Group in Cincinnati, says his wine lists carry sweeter reds in response to a subtle shift by younger consumers from cocktails and beer to wine. “Sweeter reds are a great starting point for people who want to start drinking red wines because their palates haven’t adjusted to the tannins yet,” Hart says. “It’s like drinking coffee black. Almost everyone starts with sugar first.”
Bridging The Gap
Sweet reds are mainly resonating with entry-level wine consumers, as well as a core audience of long-time sweet drink fans. “Offering sweet red blends is a good way to bring white wine and sweet white wine drinkers into the category,” says Dave Derby, senior vice president of marketing at Trinchero Family Estates. The company pioneered the modern-day red blend category with Ménage à Trois and has since launched several red blends, including sweet offerings.
“We believe that red blends, both sweet and dry, are particularly appealing to millennials as they not only have the fruit-forward flavor profile, but also an affordable price point and current relevance,” Derby adds. “Additionally, it’s a great category for consumers who don’t want to drink a dry or tannic wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Initially, consumers are drawn to the “sweet” taste profile rather than any affinity for a particular wine brand. “Type loyalty is likely the dominant path for consumers,” says Dale Stratton, vice president of consumer insights for Constellation Brands. Deutsch agrees. “The sweet wine consumer is really on a mission to find sweet wines,” he says, adding that existing Yellow Tail consumers aren’t thought to be experimenting much with the sweet red entrant because it’s such a departure from the taste profile.
However, once entrenched with sweet reds, many consumers venture further. “We are noticing that sweet red wine drinkers also purchase lighter-style offerings like Merlot, Pinot Noir and red blends,” Gallo says. Both Gallo and Derby note that consumers appreciate straightforward information about the wines they’re buying. “Millennials in particular expect packaging to be informative,” Derby says. “They want to know the story of a wine, so we label our wines in a way that helps the consumer understand the blends and which varietals dominate those blends.”
For sweet reds specifically, Gallo notes that labeling is important. “We believe that consumers are drawn to sweet red wine because it explicitly states what the product will taste like,” she says.
Sweet red blends are part of a much larger sector of red blends, which range from bone dry to sweet but may not be labeled as such. Marketers say there is a definitive demarcation between wines labeled as sweet and those that are marketed as red wines or red blends. But those red blends include some sweeter-style wines. Generally speaking, the broader red blends group is growing faster than its sweet-designated counterpart. “The sweet wine category and the red blend category are both important, and they’re growing,” Derby notes. In fact, the broader red blend category is more dynamic and therefore more attractive for many marketers.
“We think there’s an upside potential for sweeter red blends, but the bigger opportunity is in the red blend sector itself, which is a much bigger category,” Deutsch says. “Red blends are about 9 percent of total dollar share, versus sweet reds, which comprise less than 1 percent. And the red blend category is growing at about 13 percent.” He adds that sweet reds are advancing at about 4.5 percent overall. “It’s definitely a category we want to be in,” Deutsch says.
With the variety of styles offered within red blends, the category has much more mass market appeal. “I believe that a large part of the success of the red blend category is directly related to red blends’ appeal to modern-day wine consumers’ desire for more approachable, everyday drinking wines that offer a softer, smoother and more fruit-forward profile,” says Chris Indelicato, president and CEO of Delicato Family Vineyards (DFV).
DFV has seven blends at varying levels of sweetness in its current portfolio, including three labels launched last year: Belle Ambiance Red Wine, Gnarly Head Authentic Red and Juxtapoz Red Wine Blend. “At Delicato, we achieve differentiation in the market by aligning the style of our blends with each brand’s portfolio style, which can range from soft and delicate to bold and juicy,” Indelicato explains.
Trinchero is also investing heavily in the red blends sector. The company recently launched Ménage à Trois Midnight, a limited-edition release that’s described as the brand’s “most intense expression yet.” The company is also introducing Sutter Home Red Blend, a stablemate to the more established Sweet Red variant.
While sweet drink consumers may be gravitating toward certain blends and varietals, they’re also exploring different options to figure out what appeals to them in various circumstances. “Ultimately, I think today’s consumers are most concerned with drinking what they like, and I don’t think it’s specific to any category,” Indelicato says. Stratton notes that the stigma against sweeter wines seems to have gone by the wayside. “Historically, consumers would talk dry and drink sweet,” he says. “We’re seeing a shift in this behavior, with today’s consumer being very comfortable talking about their enjoyment of sweeter-styled wines.”
Aside from the “sweet” label descriptor used by some brands, Stratton sees other developments. “I have also seen some retailers set their shelves by taste profile from sweet to dry,” he says. “In the end, consumers seem to be comfortable with trial and settling on the brand of their preference.”