Nineteenth century French poet/novelist Henri Murger is one of the first to have said something like, “The main responsibility of a wine is to be red.”
Several other variations on this include, “White wine is just white wine, red wine is wine.”
And, “I drink white wine until someone opens a red.”
The late wine writer and historian Leon Adams once was among dozens waiting for wine seminar servers to open some Chardonnays for a wine reception, but Adams was resolute: “That’s not wine,” he harrumphed, “it’s white.”
This all flies in the face of the reality of the U.S. wine culture of the last two decades: red may be declining as a wine of choice for Americans.
Indeed, if scores and prices for wines were the sole yardstick for what’s popular, red would still be leading the pack. But the evidence is all there that red wines face some problems, partially as a result of the growing homogenization of so many so-called iconic red wines.
And it doesn’t help that prices for many high-end reds, which are emblematic of “the best,” have risen to price points that most Americans consider absurdly out of reach. Even discounting them by 50% hasn’t helped many such me-too wonders.
Without resorting to (boring) sales statistics, I have more than ample evidence that we are all becoming more eclectic in our tastes. And whites are leading the pack.
This is an under-the-radar movement in which lighter is widely seen as better, “refreshing” has become a descriptive term more in keeping with most of today’s buyers, and more wineries are responding to consumer demands, and ignoring magazine wine scores.
Here is a brief look at the wine marketplace of 2019.
— Sauvignon Blanc: Yes, a lot of Chardonnay still sells throughout the United States, but this grape variety, thanks largely to the impact of the New Zealand style, has risen like a rocket ship (non-Russian version).
The more distinctive New Zealand styles of Sauvignon Blanc (dozens of brands are now widely available throughout the country), the milder U.S. models, and distinctive French district (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé) versions now have an added companion, cooler-climate U.S. wines.
— Pinot Gris: There are still several popular and inexpensive Italian Pinot Grigios. But now California, Oregon, and Washington (and other northern U.S. wine areas) produce PG-based whites that excite those who seek a more floral format.
— The Rosé Renaissance: Rosé is really white wine with a hint of color, and is treated as such (it is chilled and often served as an aperitif). Hundreds of wineries have joined the early adopters and now are making a pink wine, and it is almost impossible to keep them in stock at this time of year (triple digit temperatures).
— Italian whites: Santa Rosa-based Italian wine importer Don Chigazola told me last week that his regular buyers, who once were fixated by reds, “now are asking me to show them the best white wines.” In a recent shipment he took possession of a fantastic Verdicchio in which several restaurants are showing interest.
— Dry Riesling: Germany still makes the world’s finest wine from this grape variety, and now we are beginning to see a far greater supply of German wines designated “trocken,” the German term for dry.
Moreover, German Rieslings that are completely dry also are coming in to a market eager to buy the best. (Seek wines that have GG on the label.) Add to that the best values in dry Riesling (Australia, Washington, Oregon, New York, Michigan) and it is a category all set to explode.
— Grüner Veltliner: This Austrian grape is still an infant in the wine culture. But once Americans discover it, sales are brisk.
These are only the largest category areas, but it is certainly also true that lighter red wines have been carving out their own unique niches.
— Gamay Noir: This once humble red wine grape, the heart of Beaujolais, has within the last decade found a welcoming home in Northern Oregon, where a festival dedicated to it has become extremely popular.
— Pinot Noir: the most popular wines from this grape variety include many wines that are crafted to be lighter in weight than any other red wine, and prices still keep rising for the best. You can see right through some of these wines!
— Barbera: This Italian grape variety can make a dark and concentrated red wine, but in the Sierra foothills, where it has become all the rage, most of the wines are not too dark or inky. The best rely upon excellent acidity, allowing them to work with red-sauced pasta dishes.
Finally, don’t ignore what summer temperatures do to wine-buying patterns.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Tenute dell’ Ugolino Verdicchio Dei Castello di Jesi ($22) – The bracing aroma of light citrus and fennel tops hints at minerals, and the wine’s charm is its crispness that should match well with smoked or cured salmon or trout, and triple-cream cheeses. Verdicchio is one of Italy’s most important white wines. Just arrived and may not yet be in stores. Buy direct at https://www.chigazolamerchants.com/
Of all the grape varieties that claim preeminence in this world, disheveled, tattooed, unshaven, sandal-wearing Pinot Noir seems to be the least likely candidate for stardom.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.
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