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 have legs stronger 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 tannnins 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 its 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 star is born with cabernet franc: I adore this grape that’s often used primarily to blend into cabernet sauvignon. Recently, more and more wineries are making cabernet france as a varietal wine. It 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 pinots that weren’t very good — and few $30 pinots good enough to justify that price point as well.