For centuries, wine has had its foundation in the specific communities where the grape was grown, vinified and served as a natural companion to local cuisine. However, as with many other products and fashions, wine has now become an ever-changing landscape, as consumers actively seek out something different, and producers from around the globe continue to search for expanded markets.
Over the last several decades, both consumers and trade have found fertile ground for experimentation and discovery. Now, with the internet, social media, numerous travel possibilities, along with an innate sense of curiosity, the search is always on to find something new. Many of these “finds” are more in the nature of a passing fad but others (often grounded in history and tradition) can become staples in the market and on our table.
As I look back on my early days of wine appreciation, choices were far more limited than what we see today on store shelves or on the list at a favorite restaurant. In addition to the staples of the day (e.g. Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel) wine coolers were hot (remember Bartles & James?) and White Zinfandel was establishing itself as a more refreshing semi-sweet alternative to many of the dry wines gaining a foothold and sweet fortified examples that were rapidly losing ground.
There were few imports of stature at that time other than the heralded wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy at the higher end and lower-priced sweet wines of Germany such as Liebfraumilch (that was largely produced for export) and mostly insipid Soaves at the lower end. And for something different, you could look to Lancers and Mateus for a slightly sweet lightly sparkling rosé. Not much in the way of choice and in many ways a passing fashion from the perspective of today’s market.
Through the 1980s, white wines ruled. As a result, countless acres of red grapevines were pulled to ride the great white wave with plantings of Chardonnay as the next “shining star.” Unfortunately, much of this acreage was inhospitable to Chardonnay, and inferior wines at the lower end flourished in the market while not necessarily tasting like the more varietally correct versions from prestigious growing areas.
For mostly financial reasons, other popular whites such as Chenin Blanc and Riesling were also pulled in favor of Chardonnay that has since grown to be the most widely planted, produced and consumed wine country-wide.
The 1990s were ushered in with the 1991 airing of the “French Paradox” on TV’s 60 Minutes where red wine was hailed as a major health benefit and guard against heart disease. This was based on studies of the French diet that is high in fat and long on red wine. Overnight, the rush was on to satisfy the white wine drinker’s palate with a more subdued red. Merlot was the instant answer as shelves ran dry and distributor inventories shrunk.
White grapes (not necessarily Chardonnay) were ripped out and Merlot was planted to meet the anticipated future demand. Yet, again much of the re-planting took place in the Central Valley and other areas not well-suited to the grape. Napa and Sonoma were ideal locations for growing outstanding Merlot grapes and managed somehow to partially avoid the next step in a losing fight to make the Merlot trend a staple.
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In 2004, the movie “Sideways” debuted and lead character Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) dismissed the grape and its place in the market with one simple line, “I ain’t drinking any [expletive] Merlot.” Further, the film helped position Pinot Noir as the next great trend that quickly become a staple. While Merlot sales and plantings dropped precipitously overnight, it has since regained market strength and is the fourth most planted varietal (behind Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir) in California and the U.S., while continuing as number one in Bordeaux.
Also, during the mid- to later-years of the 1980s, through the 1990s and into the mid-2000s, another trend began to appear. Vintners and winemakers tended to believe that if a little oak was good, then more would be better. That thinking combined with what is now considered the over use of malo-lactic fermentations (conversion of malic to lactic acid) for Chardonnay to “soften” it and produce the “buttery” flavor many consumers began to associate with the grape.
Thankfully, those practices have been greatly reduced to produce wines expressing more varietal character and a greater sense of place from the growing area. We now also see a swing away from over-ripe flavors and higher alcohol levels that were also sought after during those times. Not a complete shift from that trend but a substantial effort by many that will help return these wines to the “staple” categories they once enjoyed.
The market has also experienced other significant trends that have passed the test and move more toward staples. Prosecco came to the U.S. as just a simple sparkling wine that could be enjoyed at a lower price but was never thought of as a threat to Champagne or other sparklers made in the Traditional Method. How wrong “they” were, as Prosecco traversed the trend to become the number one imported sparkling wine in the U.S.
The same could be said of Pinot Grigio, which Terlato Wines International brought to the U.S. in 1979 giving consumers a chance to experience a noteworthy white wine from Italy that was decidedly different from others that were more popular at the time. It is now grown domestically and imported from countless producers to become a market leader. Curiously, the same grape from France (Pinot Gris) has gained in popularity over the years but has never approached the success of those labeled Pinot Grigio.
Other examples of trendsetters that have become staples in the market include, a resurgence of Zinfandel as a “red” wine overcoming a dominant impression of White Zinfandel, plus the broad range of classic red and white Italian wines from north to south that include many indigenous varietals along with some international names.
Spain is coming alive and the dry wines of Portugal, always popular at home, are now gaining fame as staples in the New World. The southern hemisphere from South Africa to South America and on to Australia and New Zealand are now producing what were once thought of as passing fancies but today considered important parts of the market and favored by consumers here and abroad. And let’s not forget dry rosé that continues on its impressive trajectory of growth.
So, the next time we reach for a glass of something new on the cutting edge we may ask the question, “Is this wine a trend or can it become a staple?” Just wait and see!