Some of the world's priciest wines — think the celebrated chateaux and estates of Bordeaux and Burgundy — are red blends whose composition has been fixed for centuries. But times and tastes they are a changin', and a new breed of winemaker is paying attention to an audience that is less focused on tradition and more on sensation.
In this country, the most action in friendly, easy-drinking, low-priced red blends is in California and Washington state. Case in point: 2013 House Red Wine ($10). The consciously crude label is typical of the wines of iconoclastic Washington winemaker Charles Smith, and this one seems to have been customized for Texas. The winery's website says the red is mostly syrah and merlot, with the remainder being other reds such as cabernet and sangiovese from sources presumably outside the state given the wine's American designation. Along with prune, the nose is a little weedy (yes, that weed), but there's bright dark cherry on the palate and enough body to hold up into a second day.
A little more money buys you a lot more sophistication as this trio from Washington testifies. The 2013/2014 Hands Columbia Valley Red Blend Hot to Trot ($11-12) opens with saddle leather and dark stone fruit, followed by root beer/cola notes and more spicy fruit. As is typical with Washington blends, merlot and syrah dominate here and in the 2012 Mercer Canyons Columbia Valley Red Blend ($12), a bottle that offers up chocolate and dark, almost meaty fruit, followed by velvety coffee, black cherry and baking spice. Syrah is the dominant pony in the 2012 Columbia Crest H3 Les Chevaux; there's even a little white viognier in this blend, presumably for aromatics. Plum, blueberry, smoke, chocolate ... they're all there and at a price around $14.
Cali's winegrowing regions are more varied than Washington's and as a result so are the red grape blends. In case you might miss the point of the new trend in reds, Qupé's Central Coast blend is simply called A Modern Red ($16), and it follows a Rhône formula with syrah, grenache and mourvedre. This one needed time to open up, finally yielding some caramel, blackberry and, oddly, pickled strawberry. Also from the Central Coast, Hahn Winery's Nicky Hahn GSM ($11.50), takes the same grapes, flips the percentages and results with dark cherry and bacon, followed by a slightly sweet plum, some green olive and, at the end, bright cherry and raspberry.
Taking the notion to its logical extreme, and playing to suspicions that many blends are merely opportunistic kitchen-sink mashups, there is actually a label called Kitchen Sink California Red Table Wine. Genuine winemakers at Adler Fels are behind this non-vintage mélange of grapes and years, and this one tells you what's in the bottle: zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah. The wine is light in body, but it yields bushels of mixed fruits — red cherry, currant, raspberry, pomegranate ... and it's only $8. Look for it, and many of the others, at Central Market under the convenient Other Red category. Bottom shelf, of course.