Lean v lush – what are red-wine drinkers looking for?

Choosing wine

Could there be a swing back to full-bodied wines? A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Recent surveys have delivered sobering news.

I think of myself as writing mainly for people who are sufficiently interested in wine to shop at independent wine stores rather than supermarkets (though there will be some supermarket recommendations in my forthcoming pre-Christmas coverage).

When I track down and cite small wine merchants in relatively obscure corners of the British Isles while making wine recommendations, I hope I am doing a service to both consumers and independent retailers in the fight against globalisation.

But perhaps all this is in vain. A recent survey of patrons of independent wine shops in the UK reveals that 56% of them are influenced by recommendations by family and friends, 46% of them by what’s recommended by wine-shop staff, and only 22% of them take any notice of recommendations in magazines and newspapers.

The survey was commissioned by Hallgarten & Novum Wines, a UK wine importer specialising in supplying indies, as they call them, in conjunction with insights agency KAM. They used a database of 2.5 million consumers which yielded only 1,185 suitable individuals who had visited an independent wine shop in the last year. Am I wasting my time?

My assumptions were further shattered by the headline conclusion of the survey. The one attribute most sought after in red wine, by 47% of respondents, was ‘full-bodied’. This is backed up by another survey at the end of last year by the leading drinks market data specialist IWSR – Wine Intelligence. They asked more than 3,000 regular wine drinkers in the UK for their ideal attribute in red wine. A good 40% of them said ‘full-bodied’ with an equal 40% saying ‘smooth’. (Multiple responses were allowed.)

Wine professionals take full-bodied as synonymous with potent, but my inbox is full of emails from wine consumers complaining about the overall rise in alcohol levels as a result of global warming. ‘Smooth’, meanwhile, would mean low in chewy tannin to a wine student. No wonder red bordeaux, with its trademark charge of tannin in youth, is not exactly top of the pops at the moment.

The qualities that seem most fashionable in red wines among wine producers and commentators today are the very opposite of full-bodied (see, for instance, my audit of where the wines in the most recent Dirty Dozen tasting came from). Words such as elegant, fresh, refined, pure, subtle, finesse and ‘fantastic acidity’ pepper current wine descriptions, even in the tasting booklets of those retailers who cater to the mass market.

But I wonder whether the respondents in these surveys were actually, perhaps unwittingly, referring to sweetness? Certainly the next-most-popular attributes in the Wine Intelligence survey were ‘rich’, ‘fruity’ and ‘easy to drink’, all of which sound rather sweet to me. (‘Dry’, along with ‘oaky’, was the least favoured attribute in red wines.)

It is generally agreed that sugar levels of below 2 g/l are imperceptible and most red wines are as dry as this. But there are some reds aimed at the mass market whose sugar level is much, much higher. A Thousand Lives Cabernet for instance, made by Argentina’s biggest wine company Peñaflor, has a residual sugar level of 9.6 g/l and Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet 2020 notches up 9.2 g/l. Meiomi California Pinot Noir 2021, made by the world’s second-biggest wine company Constellation Brands, is almost 25 g/l. The tasting booklet accompanying a recent tasting organised by the UK’s biggest supermarket group Tesco revealed that Estancia Pinot Noir 2018 from California is nearly 6 g/l and Bellingham Pinotage 2020 from South Africa is about 5 g/l, as are many of Tesco’s own-label wines. According to Majestic’s similar booklet, their Alain Grignon Carignan has 9.4 g/l, Domodo Negroamaro 8 g/l, Domaine Marquis Ravardel 2020 Châteauneuf-du-Pape 7 g/l and many others hover around 4 g/l.

In very general terms, wine producers in mainland Europe leave hardly any sugar in their reds, but supermarket buyers often require some in their blends to add mass-market appeal, so generally insist that some grape concentrate is added to sweeten them up. It would be useful for people with diabetes, presumably, if sugar levels were made as clear as alcohol levels.

Having observed fashions in wine come and go over the decades, I have seen proof of Newton’s third law that every action has a reaction. Wholesale adoration of alcoholic, deep-coloured reds over the turn of the century has flipped into admiration, among hipsters and a whole new generation of wine drinkers, of pale, low-alcohol, often high-acid reds. The movement could be said to have been kick-started in California by then-sommelier Rajat Parr and wine producer Jasmine Hirsch, who held tasting events in 2011 to 2016 called In Pursuit of Balance, or IPOB, from which wines as potent as 14% were barred.

I wonder, however, whether in professional wine circles, as a reaction to the unsatisfactory leanness of some of these new-wave ‘fresh’ wines, there could be a newfound love of higher-alcohol wines, so long as they are balanced? My recent tasting experience suggests that more and more winemakers are somehow managing to make high-alcohol wines that taste harmonious and lack the uncomfortably burning finish that used to characterise high-alcohol reds.

As the planet warms up and dries out, it is going to be increasingly difficult to make wines below 14% anyway. I recently attended a tasting of 32 red bordeaux from vintages 2011 to 2019 from the stocks of Justerini & Brooks, a traditional wine merchant not known for favouring flashy wines. Seven of these clarets had 14.5% on the label and two 15%. This would have been unimaginable in the last century.

Potent reds can be very comforting on a cold night. I have only one objection to them: that one has to be even more careful than with lower-alcohol wines to monitor how much of them one drinks.

And what about which reds these surveyed wine-drinkers seek? Malbec was the favourite varietal of 57% respondents, knocking Merlot with 50% (the favourite of supermarket customers according to another survey) into second place. Shiraz was cited by 43%, Cabernet by 40% and Pinot Noir by 39%. 

Sauvignon Blanc was the top white wine variety with 59% mentions, Pinot Grigio/Gris with 46%, once-popular Chardonnay 30%. Also-rans were Chenin Blanc with 26% and Viognier with a surprisingly high 24%. As for the most popular white-wine attributes, in both the Hallgarten and Wine Intelligence surveys these were ‘easy to drink’, ‘fresh’ and ‘crisp’.

I’m not quite sure how to decode ‘easy to drink’. I find that description applies to virtually all the wines that come my way.

Full-bodied reds

Ch Le Peuy Saincrit 2019 Bordeaux Supérieur 15%
£14.99 Majestic

Andeluna 1300 Malbec 2022 Uco Valley 14.5%
£15.95 Alteus Wines

Dom La Tasque Carignan 2018 IGP Aude 15%
€18 producer's website

Dom de Mourchon, Grande Réserve 2020 Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Séguret 15.5%
£19.99 Averys, Laithwaites

Acústic, Vinyes Velles Nobles 2020 Montsant 15%
£19.95 Lea & Sandeman

Keermont Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 Stellenbosch 15%
£29.50 Swig (arriving early 2024)

Ch Taillefer 2019 Pomerol 15%
£31.84 Justerini & Brooks

Seghesio, Cortina Zinfandel 2018 Dry Creek Valley 15.2%
£43 London End, £44.40 VINVM

Photo credit: d3sign via Getty Images. For tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates see our database of nearly 250,000 tasting notes. For international stockists see Wine-Searcher.com.