Berger on wine: Alternative whites for millennial tasters

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Wine trends go through cycles, some of which are difficult to predict. Today we face the fact that millennial buyers may be history’s least predictable wine-buying group, and one of the most challenging.

Baby boomers, a prior consumer group, were relatively predictable. To this day, demand for chardonnay, which was developed as a boomer fad 30-odd years ago, remains the largest wine niche market in the country. It gained most of its momentum based on boomers’ enthusiasm for it starting in the 1980s, just as they were coming of age to consume wine.

Parallel to that was the demand for upscale cabernet. Zinfandel reached a frenzied peak about a decade ago, and even riesling had its brief day in the sun recently.

As boomers began to age, however, and they consumed a lot less wine than they had, their demands for unusual wines, which was never really very high, declined even further.

Moreover, the Generation X crowd seemed to focus more on craft or boutique beverages. The cocktail made a return to its 1930s-to-‘50s glory; craft beer exploded; and fads of all sorts made inroads into traditional drinks.

But Gen X was a smaller group by population (about 50 percent smaller by some estimates), and the millennial crowd, which came along recently, was as large as was the boomer group. And it has set the tone for the new wave of wine that seems to be strongest in the unquenchable Bay Area.

I have spoken casually with wine and spirits retailers from around the country, and little has changed in many other major markets, other than the fact that wine sales generally are rising.

There are weak spots. Sales of high-end cabernet sauvignon are sluggish (but some producers are thriving because of higher demand for such wines from Asian markets). Chardonnay remains No. 1, but by far the strongest segment of that niche is at lower-price points.

Some weaknesses remain. In the last 15 years, merlot sales have dragged along, sparkling wine has not caught on as a dinner beverage and remains largely for celebrations, and dessert wines have never found traction.

The strongest segments in the Bay Area at the moment, from what my casual research has discovered, are dry rosé wines and what some retailers are calling “alternative whites.”

So although Albariño, Pigato, and Torrontes sounds like a European law firm, they are really the latest demands by Northern California wine buyers, despite their relative obscurity.

Millennial wine buyers are marked by their unending curiosity and quest for diverse aromas and tastes. As such, they first embraced Rhône Valley white blends, wines that had various combinations of the exotic, flowery viognier, and the blander rousanne and marsanne. Among the best are those from Tablas Creek and Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volant Blanc.

Next came an interest in an Austrian grape, grüner veltliner, which soon had been planted randomly around the United States. I love the Zocker from Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County and Reustle Prayer Rock from Umpqua Valley in Oregon.

Torrontes, the pineapple-y Argentine grape; vermentino from Italy, with its dried lemon peel (which may be the same as pigato), pinot blanc (or bianco in Italy), and silvaner from Germany all seem to have their champions, and some have even found that dry riesling from Germany is another category making a comeback.

Many Northern California wine shops have had to expand their sections dedicated to what they now call alternative whites. Included in the alternative whites category are many Italian white wines from uncommon grapes such as arneis, greco, gavi, orvieto, verdicchio, verduzzo, falanghina, and many more.

New Zealand’s delightfully unique un-oaked sauvignon blanc long ago became a star alternative white. Today it is so mainstream it can routinely be found almost everywhere selling for between $10 and $20 a bottle. The latest fad in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is in some of the fascinating oak-matured versions that sell for twice as much.

For the time being, millennials are driving American wine sales.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Salwey Pinot Blanc, Baden, Henkenberg, GG ($40): This sensational white wine from Germany is completely dry (the GG indicates that) and is truly representative of the new wave of enthusiasm for alternative whites. The aroma is reminiscent of chamomile tea, lime, and slate. The wine is so dry it cries out for something like sole or trout poached in lemon with a drizzle of great olive oil. Imported by Cellars International.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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