A bottle of wine that's been open too long, a splash of orange juice, some cut-up fruit and maybe a spritz of seltzer—that's sangria for you, right? No way, says the European Union: Bottled Sangria, not your Thermos porch stuff, must come from Spain or Portugal as much as Montrachet must come from the Burgundy vineyard, according to a regulation approved in February.
The E.U. is probably acting because of what importers, retailers and drinkers have noticed as well: Premixed sangria is caliente right now. The once-humble summer sipper is taking the wine world by storm. "We think sangria is the next big thing in wine," said Peter Deutsch, CEO of importer Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.
The numbers give him a strong case: The four leading sangria brands grew 43 percent in the U.S. between 2010 and 2013, to 1.78 million cases, according to Impact Databank. The number three brand, which Impact, a sister publication of Wine Spectator, called the top driver of growth in the category, Lolailo, has grown 206 percent since 2010, to 460,000 cases.
Deutsch's Yellow Tail sangria moved 138,000 cases last year, the first year of its release, and Deutsch expects to sell 220,000 more in the next 12 months. Eppa, a more premium label Deutsch acquired last year, sold 70,000 cases in 2013 and Deutsch predicts 100,000 in the next 12 months. Meanwhile, the No. 2 brand in the U.S., Gallo’s Madria, grew from 305,000 cases in 2010 to 470,000 last year. Smaller brand Don Simon grew from 20,000 to 75,000 in the same period.
"What supports [our optimism] is the convergence of flavor, the consumer's desire for easy drinking and the demand for slightly sweet wines," said Deutsch. The newer sangria brands driving growth average 6 to 7 percent alcohol and are not cloying.
Who's propelling this growth? "Certainly there's a population, let's say 21 to 35, who view sangria as purely a party drink and they're buying it by the boatload," said Darren Restivo, principal and marketing director of Biagio Cru and Estate Wines, which imports Lolailo. "Then you go into the older generation where they're looking to drink wine but not get drunk. They're looking for the [health] benefits of wine."
Eppa is made from California wine and fruit, organically grown, and touts a blend of fruit juices that give it twice the antioxidant level of red table wine. At $12 a bottle, it's at the high end of a drink people are accustomed to paying $3 to $6 for. Deutsch said the demographic is "the wellness-oriented female consumer who's looking for products of outstanding quality and she's willing to pay a premium for that."
Biagio attributes its success to authenticity—Lolailo is made in Spain's Castilla-La Mancha from a blend of Tempranillo and Bobal. "I believe that is helping to propel its growth. Consumers will quickly recognize that [authenticity] in the coming years," said Restivo.
While Deutsch questioned the importance of place—"At under $15, I think point of origin is going to be meaningless"—the E.U. is less sanguine. "I certainly see the European Union trying to push the U.S. to make the change," said Restivo, but he doesn't see the need for the regulation of sangria. "We're confident without any of those laws coming to the United States."
So far, sangria's biggest outlets are off-premise retail stores. "The item does very well for us," said Annette Alvarez-Peters, head wine buyer for Costco. "The sangrias we carry do not necessarily do as well in our highly affluent locations, but I would suspect these members are making their own sangrias with premium wine and fresh fruit."
Still, Biagio and Deutsch have been working to break into more premium outlets, such as restaurants and bars, trying to persuade owners that a well-made, premium sangria will sell better than a house-made blend.
With Americans guzzling Moscato, sweet reds, premixed wine cocktails and now sangria, the low-cost sweet and semisweet wine category would seem to be reaching a saturation point in the U.S. "We were very concerned about that with Yellow Tail, because when you introduce Yellow Tail sangria, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is what other Yellow Tail wines are going to be impacted?" said Deutsch. But so far his numbers have shown that there's room at the table for sangria alongside similar categories.
The importers hope sangria can introduce drinkers to the wider world of wine, as with other entry-level drinks. "Those that are producing good-quality sangrias, it's a great bridge for the future to enter the arena of wine," said Restivo.