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Friday, August 7, 2015

Wine Varieties Go In and Out of Popularity

"Everybody" wants a Pinot Grigio or a Moscato (this year). 

The funny part is that the consumers drinking these wines think they've discovered the way out of the boring ol' Chardonnay and Merlot habit. Well, they're not the first. Wine varieties go in and out of popularity--as do wine styles for that matter. This isn't something discovered by the Millennials, as some believe.

It seems like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have been the most popular wines forever. If by "forever" you mean for the last several decades then yes. Chardonnay is interesting in that for more than a decade it was in a "the more buttery and oaky the better" phase. Chardonnay wasn't always like that and has actually moved away from that trend in the last several years. This is similar to the craft beer trend of "the more hops the better." People have to push the envelope until the consumer pushes back.

Pinot Noir is a hot varietal. Some folks think ever since the mildly popular movie Sideways Pinot Noir really took off, but Pinots were already starting to become popular. I don't really know how much the movie helped. Pinot Noir had always been around, but in California people were still learning where to grow it and how to make it. That's finally been figured out in the past couple decades. For a long time it was being planted in areas too warm (Pinot requires a cool growing season) and was being made like Cabernet or other red wines (there are some different techniques).

Syrah was going to be The Next Big Thing according to the conventional wisdom of 25 years ago. People planted the heck out of it and you know what? It never challenged Cabernet as it was supposed to. At that time Australian Shiraz was gaining popularity as an inexpensive, simple, fruity wine--not anything like what was coming out of California. Winemakers are moving to Syrah blends and this may help. In the meantime there is a lot of Syrah out there.

Zinfandel really has had its ups and downs. Until the mid-20th century most Sonoma County Zinfandel went into blends (aka jug wines). Zinfandel started to come into its own in the 1970s. Then just as quickly it kind of died out as a dry red wine only to be saved by the explosion of White Zinfandel in the 1980s. Real (red) Zinfandel has made a comeback fueled by the fruit-forward ones of the 1990s. These higher alcohol fruit bombs were all the rage for awhile until many folks decided they didn't like 16% alcohol wines. Many Zins have scaled back on the alcohol now while trying to preserve the fruit forward flavors.

If you were crazy enough to plant grapes in Sonoma or Napa County in the 1960s then you were probably planting Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and French Colombard.

Yes, some are proclaiming Muscat to be The Next Big Thing. I say, "only in your wine marketing dreams." Anyone who has been around the California wine biz long enough knows how these trends work.

Pinot Gris/Grigio is hot in many markets--I think it's more the eastern U.S. as you don't really see much of it in California. This is the time to tell the story of my son, the California native, visiting his grandmother in Pittsburgh PA. They took him out for a nice dinner. where he ordered a glass of Pinot and was totally shocked to find out it was white! "Pinot" in CA defaults to Pinot Noir. In other places it means Pinot Gris.

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are still #1 and #2 and I don't see that changing any time soon. Everybody naturally wants to unseat whoever is #1 whether it's McDonald's, Coca Cola, Amazon, or Chardonnay.