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If there’s a “new wine style,” what is it?



“A shift in the consumer base,” fueled by “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles”: that’s what Rabobank, one of the the nation’s biggest lenders to wineries, is talking about, in their latest report on the wine industry.

And when Rabobank talks, wineries listen. Every winery in the country—certainly every winery I know in California—is obsessed with predicting the future, for if there is indeed “a new wave…in global wine styles,” wineries want to know about it. What is this “new wave”? What is the shift going to consist of? Most importantly, what new “wine styles” are consumers going to be looking for?

To begin to understand the future, it’s necessary to know the past, for nothing happens without lots of things that have already happened making it happen. So let’s take a look at the past, to see if it helps us comprehend the future.

We know what “wine styles” the consumer likes now, for the consumer votes with his wallet. You might loosely call it “Californian.” People like ripe, fruity wines, red and white. They like varietal wines (notwithstanding this current gaga about red blends). And, here in America, they like wines from California.

But it hasn’t always been so. The last time there was a true “shift in wine styles” was more than a generation ago. That’s when Americans started drinking more dry wine than sweet (those silly Sauternes and Rhine wines). It’s also when they decided that varietal wines were more upscale. Since California led the nation in the production of dry varietal wines, it’s no wonder that consumers gravitated toward California wine.

Let’s go further back in history. Before the era I just described (some call it the boutique winery era), America had been mired, for another 30 or 40 years, in that sweet wine era (if they drank wine at all, which not many did). Prohibition was, of course, the dead hand that had interrupted the country’s vinous progression. So what was happening before that? Again, not many people drank wine—but those who did drank good wine, from Europe and from California. It may not have had varietal names, but in many cases it was made from proper vitis vinifera varieties.

So we’re had three distinct eras since the 19th century: one, when a few Americans drank good wine; a second, when more Americans drank bad wine; and a third, the current, when lots of Americans are drinking good wine again, mostly from California, but in reality from all over the world. So if we’re in for a global shift in wine styles, what could it be?

Well, first, the timing is right: America seems to change its preferences every 30 o4 40 years, so, if you date the current era to the boutiques of the 1960s, we’re ripe for a change, maybe even a little overdue. If things do change, then today’s preference—remember, it’s for ripe, fruity wines from California—will have to change to something else. But what could that be?

We’re not going back to a liking for sweet wines, believe me (although a great off-dry Riesling, a sweet late harvest white wine or a red Port are earthly delights!). Therefore, consumer preference is likely to remain with dry wines. What, then, about fruitiness? I can’t see that changing either, for at least three reasons: one, fruitiness is an ingrained taste: not only humans like fruitiness, but birds and animals, too. Two, the world palate has shifted away from lean, angular wines to riper, rounder wines, and no matter how many articles get written about the low alcohol fad, that’s not going to change. Third, if we are indeed in a time of global warming (as indeed the Bordelais themselves believe, and as seems to be an increasingly credible belief in Napa Valley), then it will be awfully hard to produce wines of the type of old-style Bordeaux, when alcohol levels barely exceeded 12 percent, tannins were gigantic, and the wines took decades to come around.

So what options do we have? Precious few. Dry, fruity wines are what seems likely to remain. Of course, we could turn away from wine altogether: America could become a cocktail drinking country, a beer drinking country, or—heaven forbid!—a dry country. But none of those options is likely. Wine has been at the center of western culture for millennia; it’s now becoming so in Asian culture; wine is not going anywhere.

So the Rabobank prediction has to be taken with a certain latitude. There won’t be any major “new wave of innovation on wine style.” That’s bank-study language: the people who write this stuff have to come up with sexy sound bites in order to make headlines. What’s more likely is that the trend of the last three-plus centuries will continue. The world’s love of noble varieties—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah—will continue, despite short-term shifts, every few decades, in the particulars. A few oddballs will succeed at the margins—Muscat is the classic example—but they don’t have staying power. The major varieties Americans love won’t change. Zinfandel will go in and out of style, as the press dictates—but the great producers always will be in demand among the cognoscenti. Beyond that, I just can’t see any huge new intrusions of other varieties.

It looks to me like, far from Rabobank’s prediction of “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles,” we’re looking at a continuation of what is. What will determine who makes it, and who doesn’t, isn’t so much a question of style, as of marketing, communications, consistency, value, consumer engagement, distribution, success in direct-to-consumer, sales expertise—in other words, the fundamentals of good business practice. There is, indeed, “a new wave of innovation,” but it’s not a stylistic one, it’s innovation in the way wineries interact with, and respect, the consumer.

  1. 1. ‘Reveal the Blend age’ regardless of the old rules of keeping closed mouthed if your wine had 75% of the main varietal. Our palates are refined enough today to expect to know more about a vintner’s practice.
    2. Bakersfield and Frenso, CA era. They alone will always keep and hope to resurge the sweet wine era. Paso wines target these folks with high RS. i.e. Jammy Zin! yuch, gag.
    3. The Tannat Era? or Counoise era?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Let’s go across The Pond (and travel back 13 years in time) and see what other voices on The Continent had to say on this subject.

    Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine website
    (posted December 31, 2001):

    “How Our Taste in Wine Styles Has Evolved”


    . . . TODAY’S WINES ARE SO MUCH MORE OBVIOUSLY FRUITY, whether they be lowly table wines – red, white or pink – at the very bottom end of the price range or classed growth Bordeaux with a possible life expectancy of 30 years. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

    I feel sorry for modern wine producers and happy for today’s wine consumers. To stay in the race producers have to keep on raising their game with every vintage as their competitors all over the world do the same. Today’s consumers are spoilt, I am delighted to say.

    WE WANT FRUIT, BECAUSE WE IDENTIFY THAT WITH PLEASURE AND FLAVOR. WE WANT SOME STRUCTURE AND TANNIN BECAUSE WE WANT TO BE ABLE TO CELLAR A WINE IF WE DON’T FELL LIKE DRINKING IT STRAIGHT AWAY. But consumers in markets such as the United States, Australia and much of northern Europe don’t want just any tannins. WE NOW WANT THE RIGHT SORT OF TANNINS. We have reached the stage where, for example, we fuss over not just the tannin levels in our wines but whether the tannins are green, ripe, hard, fine, tough, wood, grainy and many other sorts of tannins besides. (The Australians are apparently developing a “tannin wheel” for use in describing tannins to use alongside the aroma wheel of Ann Noble of Davis, California.)

    WE HAVE VOTED VEHEMENTLY OVER THE LAST TWO OR THREE YEARS AGAINST EXCESSIVE OAK, with more obvious success in white wines so far than reds.

    We say we don’t want sugar (unless there is an awful lot of it and the wine is very expensive), so medium dry wines such as those from Germany and the Loire are finding it harder and harder to win friends abroad. But on the other hand many of the best-selling commercial blends, especially those labeled Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, rely quite heavily on heavily masked sugar for their appeal.

    WHAT WE CLEARLY WANT FROM WINE AS FROM EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE IS IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION. We want our wines to come at least halfway to meet us. We would rather not have to make an effort to like them, to have to forgive any youthful imperfections.

    . . .

    What the rest of us at the sharp end of this trend must now guard against is that wines become too facile, too precocious, too similar, too self-conscious, too manipulated, in a word, too modern.

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