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Tannic Panic! Issue #5: Cheap Red Wines & Check Out Lines
Mass Market Mania: Value Wine or Drain Cleaner?
What’s crackin’ ya filthy winos? Today we are talking about the elephant in the grocery store, mass market reds. Why don’t we start with the cold, hard, truth: mass market red wine usually sucks.
There’s a reason for that. It’s not easy to produce a high quality wine on a dime, and when demand is high enough, production needs to be upscaled immensely. Unsurprisingly there’s not enough high quality fruit to support that demand, and so, in order to produce a consistent product, winemakers often need to turn to cheaper grapes that are pumped out en masse from regions that are great for growing huge quantities of low quality fruit. But then there’s the problem of turning those grapes into something that resembles wine, and even more challenging – something (*SOME*) people actually enjoy drinking. This is where the trickery comes in – AKA “recipe winemaking.”
This means relying on things like cheap oak chips (new oak barrels would be too expensive) to infuse flavors like vanilla and mocha (and oftentimes in the case of the cheaper wood, things like log cabin syrup and burnt sugar). It also means using high residual sugar as a crutch, masking some of the off-putting (or otherwise nonexistent) flavors, and producing a fuller mouth feel.
There’s certainly a market for these slightly sweeter, confectionary wines (hence MASS MARKET), but they are not representative of the liquid poetry we hope you are expecting from the humble grapes of yore. In fact, these blends (or even so-called “single varietal” bottles) are often so far from representative of the grapes they claim to purvey, that producers elect to pump them full of mega-purple (a common color additive in lower quality wines) just to make that bottle of cheap grape juice look more like wine. Mega-purple also has a sweetening effect on the wine, amplifying the confectionary profile of many mass market reds.
The end result, more often than not, is an artificial looking, artificial tasting, simple drink with a short finish that is effectively indistinguishable from many of its neighbors on the mass market shelves. These bottles are largely devoid of varietal character, and lack any real sense of place (except maybe down my drain).
Now, does this mean you CAN’T find a decent bottle nestled amongst the plonk? That’s what we’ve set out to find out for you, by subjecting ourselves to 18 bottles of the most popular mass market wines, available at practically every store that sells wine in the country (USA).
Before we divulge the trends we found that you can keep in mind next time you are hunting for a bargain at the grocery store, let’s take a look at our ranked list of the bottles we tasted (or endured):
2021 Casillero Del Diablo Reserva, Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Valley D.O., Chile / 13.5% ABV / 88+ points / $8 (BEST VALUE)
Nose/palate: Black pepper, dark fruits – cassis, blackberry, a bit of vanilla, green pepper, hint of smoke. Full bodied, dry, high tannins, high acid, well structured, fairly well-balanced with a relatively short (med-) finish. Fruit flavors and a hint of graphite carries through to the palate, pleasant and simple wine with just a slightly bitter aftertaste that suggests it would be best paired with food.
A wine representative of the varietal & region. Fantastic value.
2017 Casillero Del Diablo Reserva Privada, Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley D.O., Chile / 14.5% ABV / 89 points / $15 (HIGHEST SCORE)
Nose/palate: slight rubber/asphalt (softens as it opens up), mocha & vanilla (oak), black pepper, red & black fruit, cacao. Smooth, full-bodied, high tannins, high acidity, nicely balanced, with a relatively short finish but no unpleasant aftertaste.
Another strong representation of the cabernet sauvignon varietal from Chile.
2020 Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, CA / 14.5% ABV / 87 points / $17
Nose/palate: Dark fruit aromas, blueberry and blackberry jam, vanilla, hint of pencil shavings. Nice nose, not too complex. Full bodied, high tannins, high acid, medium length finish.
Well made wine, balanced, some layers on the nose, not too complex but no negatives to the aromatic profile and decently structured – actually smells like a cab with a sense of varietal and place. At the price point, I would consider my options, but it’s not a bad choice as mass market reds go.
2017 Campo Viejo Reserva, Rioja, Spain / 14% ABV / 86 points / $11 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Value)
Nose/palate: Toasted coconut, mocha (prominent oak), red fruit (strawberry, cherry), spice. Decently structured and spicy, with full body, medium+ tannins, high acid, dry, medium- length finish.
A solid wine for the price, and has a sense of place. Absolutely worthwhile to fork over the extra $2 to get the upgrade from the Campo Viejo Tempranillo (also reviewed) if you are considering buying a bargain bottle from this producer.
2019 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, CA / 14.5% ABV / 86 points / $18
Nose/palate: Burnt rubber, dark fruits (plum, cassis), mocha (oak). Full bodied, high tannins, medium+ acidity, medium length finish with a bit of bitterness that lingers after the fruit dissipates. Decent structure and balance.
This wine looks and expresses itself like a cabernet sauvignon (hooray!), but given the price point, I would not consider this a value wine.
2019 Joel Gott 815, Cabernet Sauvignon / 14.5% ABV / 85 points / $15
Nose/palate: Raspberry and blackberry, cocoa and subtle oak spice. Medium bodied, medium acidity, medium tannin. Dry.
Very simple wine, but not a bad experience.
2021 Ruffino Chianti / 13% ABV / 85 points (improved 1-2 days open) / $9
Nose/palate: Muted sour red fruits (cranberry/strawberry), rubber, a soapy note, a bit biter with some heat on the finish. Simple, thin and astringent, but identifiable as chianti, high acidity, dry.
This has the core characteristics of a chianti (tart red fruits, slightly garnet color, dry), albeit very simple with no complexity to speak of.
2020 Bogle Merlot / 14.5% / 84+ points / $9
Nose/palate: Plum, cherry, toasty oak spice, caramel, subtle green note, slight bitterness on the finish, medium bodied, low to med tannin, med- acidity, dry to off dry.
Not the worst wine in the world for the price, but many better options out there under $10.
2020 J Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, CA / 13.9% / 84 points / $13
Nose/palate: Fruit forward aromas, dark fruits – plum, cassis, and prominent oak (caramel syrup, mocha). Concentrated, simple flavors, dry, medium+ body, high tannins, medium acid, and a short finish. A hint of spice and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Not a bad wine and not a blasphemous representation of the grape, but you can find better for the price.
2020 Catena Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina / 13.5% / 84 points / $15
Artificial look – likely added mega-purple
Nose/palate: cheap toasted oak, burnt brown sugar, rubber, vanilla, strawberry. Smooth, short finish, with minimal structure, and a bit confectionary with perceptible residual sugar.
Catena offers some great wines, but this mass market Malbec is not a success. We’ll pass.
2020 Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon / 13.5% / 83 points / $14
Nose/palate: Cherry/strawberry (somewhat artificial), vanilla, simple wine, low tannins, medium bodied, med acidity, dry to off dry, lacking complexity
2020 Ménage à Trois, Winemaker’s Red Wine, California / 13.5% / 82 points / $8
Nose/palate: Maple syrup (oak), cheap cocktail cherries - like the ones they put in Shirley Temples, violets, graphite. Not unpleasant smelling taken alone, but not appealing as a wine. Medium+ body, perceptible residual sugar, lingering taste like you’ve just eaten a stack of pancakes drenched in iHop artificial syrup.
Expect a hangover.
2021 Campo Viejo Tempranillo, Rioja, Spain / 13.5% / 82 points / $9
Nose/palate: Tar/hot asphalt, ripe red fruit (cherries), vanilla (oak). Med+ body, med+ tannins, med acid, dry, short finish. A bit of a bitter aftertaste.
While it has some less appealing characteristics, like notes of rubber & tar, and a short finish with a slightly bitter aftertaste, it does not present the confectionary and artificial characteristics that make many wines around this price point so unappealing.
2018 The Federalist, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi, CA / 13.9% / 81 points / $15
Nose/palate: Blueberry maple syrup, Welch’s grape juice, rubber, black pepper, cheap oak. Full bodied and confectionary on the palate, almost like a grocery store vanilla cake, with relatively high residual sugar, decently balanced but not much structure.
Could be someone’s cup of tea if they like simple confectionary reds, but not a good representation of the mighty cab sauv grape.
2018 Smoking Loon Cabernet Sauvignon, California / 13.5% / 80 points / $8
Nose/palate: leads with vanilla/oak character, with some red fruit – red apple, raspberry, a hint of a chemical smell like nail polish. Off dry, with medium tannins, juicy candied fruit flavor, kind of like Kool-Aid (artificial and candied). It’s smooth, doesn’t have that lingering bitterness like some of the others, and just a hint of smokiness at the end of the short finish.
Tastes artificial and unrepresentative of cab.
2019 Hess Family Select, Cabernet Sauvignon, California / 13.5% / 80 points / $13
Nose/palate: Inoffensive aromas of vanilla & mocha with some artificial cherry. Quite a bit of residual sugar gives a sense of sweetness. Lacks any complexity, notable absence of dark fruit and structure, relying only on oak and residual sugar to carry the load.
Terrible value, don’t even breathe near this one on the shelf.
2020 19 Crimes Red, South Eastern Australia / 13.5% / 73 points / $9
I fear this bottle just committed its 20th crime: existence.
Immediately after pouring a glass, you can see something is off – the color of this young wine veers into garnet, typically a sign of age or oxidation.
Nose/palate: A blast of sweet vanilla/oak, followed by strawberry fruit by the foot, and just a hint of spoiled fruit. By and large inoffensive aromatically, but a bit artificial. Full bodied with very high tannins, a bit spicy, with noticeably high residual sugar, and a bit chemical tasting – like cough medicine. It has a very bitter lingering aftertaste, which given the shockingly high tannins, suggests that the winemaker left the seeds and stems in with the must to impart more structure (a technique that allows the extraction of more tannins, but with a much more bitter character than those extracted from the skins of the grapes).
It claims to be 13.5% ABV, which I found to be surprising because the ethanol was perceptible in a way that I find in higher alcohol wines.
2021 Meiomi Pinot Noir, California / 13.7% / 69 points (nice!) / $16
Color: Medium/dark ruby with purple undertones (MEGAPURPLE ALERT!). This wine does not look at all like a pinot noir.
Nose/palate: Concord grape juice, artificial blackberry maple syrup (think Aunt Jemima), strawberry fruit roll ups, fake vanilla, an overheated plastic note. Overall, a very cloying and artificial experience. Definitely enough residual sugar to push this awkward puppy into the “off dry” category.
If you want to re-create the Meiomi “pinot noir” experience at a fraction of the price, here’s a nifty recipe that will do just the trick:
2 parts Welch’s grape juice
1 shot of vodka
1 tbsp Aunt Jemima’s blackberry table syrup
MegaPurple to taste
Moral of the story: buying your red wine from grocery stores is usually a bad choice, but we understand that sometimes, Daddy (or Mommy for that matter) needs his juice.
In spite of the limited optionality at the grocery store, there are a couple of simple tactics you can use to more effectively filter out the swill.
Look for bottles from South America (especially Chile), where even in mass market production, you can find a decent quality bottle that has a sense of varietal and place. You’ll also find some mass market gems from Spain (Rioja), Italy (Chianti), and sometimes parts of France (Rhone Valley).
Place to avoid: CALIFORNIA! It’s EXPENSIVE to make wine in California, so the producers selling cheap mass market bottles are cutting a lot of corners to get that price down. It will show in the glass, and you can almost always do better! Notice, our top picks from California weren’t exactly bargains for the scores they received. Even the best of mass market reds from California tend to fall into the category I like to refer to as “airplane wine.” They sell them in little single serving bottles, and you aren’t drinking them for the taste – but at least they’re potable (most of the time).
The bottom line is this: value can be found in many places, but whenever possible, the best place to buy your RED wine is from somewhere that offers smaller production options (your local wine shop, or alcohol merchant like Total Wine & More).
Cheers to plonk, swill, and mass market “value.”
Isaac & Zach
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