Marketing fads develop rapidly, almost explosively. But they are transitory, flaming out quickly. Longer-term trends usually unfold more slowly, like the petals of a flower opening in spring.
With wine, fads usually arrive without warning, often causing producers to do contortions to feed the beast without strategic planning.
Take, for example, the case of Moscato.
Muscat is a mundane white grape with an exotic aroma of carnations, gardenias, or rose petals. It’s usually made sweet, like Italy’s Asti Spumante.
Nearly a decade ago, muscat suddenly became all the rage in the United States. Sweet wines called Moscato, sounding vaguely Italianate, were instantly popular. Wineries everywhere scrambled to find muscat grapes or juice.
Almost overnight there were pink Moscatos, sparkling and semi-sparkling Moscatos, and even one that was blue! Almost all were sweet enough to serve with dessert. Wine connoisseurs didn’t favor them.
Wine quality didn’t create this fad. It happened when hip-hop artists mentioned Moscato in performances. That’s all it took — for a short time.
Despite how fashionable Moscato was with some people, two years later you couldn’t give it away. This defines a fad. It went from white-hot to not in a flash.
This past year, I saw the first steps toward potential trends that I suspect may last longer than most fads. Here are a few:
- Merlot rebirth: In the wake of disparaging remarks about this noble grape a decade ago in a popular movie (“Sideways”), merlot sales hit the skids. But recently they have rebounded.
Over the last two years, perhaps upset by many mediocre and overpriced cabernet sauvignons, consumers began to buy merlot again.
And with good reason. Many wineries have abandoned heavier versions. Lighter, more balanced wines are in vogue. Moderate alcohols and better balance with lower tannins than cabernet are capturing younger buyers.
- Sauvignon Blanc gains respect: Once thought of as “poor-man’s chardonnay” (so help me!), this variety is being made better than ever. The only drawback: high demand has pushed prices up.
- Dry riesling on the march: A less obvious trend, this grape with is German heritage is remarkably appealing with Thai food, and it is better than ever.
Sales of dry German rieslings (called trocken) are rising, but so are domestic versions.
The best U.S. dry rieslings are from upstate New York (few are unavailable outside the state). Washington and Oregon also make splendid drier rieslings and in California, superb versions may now be seen from Mendocino, Marin County, and the Central Coast (mainly Monterey).
- A budding star: Cabernet franc: I adore this grape that’s often used primarily to blend into cabernet sauvignon. Recently more and more wineries are making cabernet franc the as a varietal wine. In can be less tannic than cabernet sauvignon and benefits greatly from aeration.
- Pricey pinot: California pinot noir is better than ever, but high demand is increasing prices.
Demand since about 2010 is so strong for pinot that prices for even modest versions now are at $30, and the best are $60 or more.
The craze for top-quality pinot noir reminds me of a similar mania that gripped cabernet lovers in the early 1980s. But in some ways, the latest craze is more daunting. Pinot is a bit harder to make great than cabernet. I have tasted some $75 pinot noirs that weren’t very good — and few $30 pinot noirs good enough to justify that price point as well!
Pinot noir buyers must be careful when planning purchases. Tip: Check alcohol levels. I prefer those below 14 percent. Many that are significantly higher can be tasty red wines, but not very pinot-like.
- Rosé rising: The biggest trend of them all. I will write more on this next week.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Bonterra Merlot, California ($15): The aroma of this wine from organic grapes shows dark cherry and hints of dried herbs. The mid-palate is laden with fresh plums and the finish is more graceful than most cabernets. Only 13.7 percent alcohol. It is fairly priced – and I have seen it widely marketed for almost $12.