I tasted about 9,000 wines in 2007, and when you check out that many bottles, you get a pretty good idea of which way the wind is blowing in the world of wine.
But while watching trends wax and wane, it is possible to misinterpret them. Those of us who are wine industry observers but also wine lovers can mistake our own preferences for market trends. And when that happens, we turn out to be generating the wind rather than gauging it.
I've made that mistake before, believing incorrectly a decade ago that consumers were ready to turn their backs on big, chunky, oaky, alcoholic Monster Wines in favor of leaner offerings with greater purity and finesse.
It turned out that oaky, gooey fruit bombs had not worn out their welcome with consumers as I believed in 1997, nor were casual wine lovers anywhere as interested in dry rosés or lithe Rieslings or crisp Sauvignon Blancs as I thought they would be.
So I know, from personal experience, that I can be wrong about this sort of thing. And I might be wrong again now, but I get the sense that we've finally turned a corner in the past year or two in the stylistic tug-of-war between lighter, fresher wines and heavier, more manipulated ones.
There's now some pretty compelling evidence indicating that lighter wines featuring greater purity of fruit are gaining rapidly in popularity. Moreover, there are abundant indications that the longstanding antipathy among wine critics (most, but not all critics!) to wines with conspicuous levels of wood and alcohol is now being shared by an increasing number of consumers. Consider four examples of this broad trend:
1) The dramatic success of Pinot Grigio (now the leading imported varietal wine in the USA, surpassing varietal Chardonnay) is a dramatic case in point. The strongest reason for believing that the Grigio boom signals a broader triumph for wines that are light and refreshing is that 95% of Pinot Grigios are nothing but light and refreshing. There is no other reason to drink them, but millions of people are drinking them--and not just in hot weather. If there is another reason why so many consumers are buying these wines, I suspect it would be merely the flip side of the light-and-refreshing coin, namely, that that these same consumers are sick of thick, vaguely sweet Chardonnays that are full of lactic notes and taste like vanilla taffy.
2) The proliferation of "unwooded" Chardonnays also points toward an upswing for leaner, fresher wines. This category didn't even exist a decade ago, and when 'unwooded' term began to appear on labels, it had a jarring effect on critics and consumers alike. This is because it was a striking instance of winemakers trying to improve a wine by subtraction in an era when addition was the rule. (This was right about the time of the advent of wines with "200% new oak," which refers to the practice of storing a wine in a new barrel and then maximizing oak influence by performing the second half of its ageing in yet another new barrel).
I remember hearing a wine-knowledgeable friend scoff at the "unwooded" designation in the early days, asking, "Why would I pay for something that they are withholding from my wine?" Well, that friend, who used to love big butterball Chardonnays and praise their food-friendliness for things like fried chicken, has come to spurn his butterballs, and so too have winemakers around the world. Almost everybody who is making Chardonnay (as well as other barrel-fermented or barrel-aged wines) around the world has backed off on the oak. Toast levels on barrels are lower than ever, percentages of new wood are down, and the duration of oak ageing is being shortened. And you can taste the difference all over the world.
3) Another indication of the light-is-right shift in the world of wine is the fact that Mediterranean-style rosé has wriggled out of the death-grip of "White Zinfandel" to become a genuine commercial success. A decade ago, critics were--almost universally--singing the praises of dry rosé. And consumers were--almost universally--responding with utter indifference. That has changed, and quite dramatically, in just the past couple of years.
Dry rosés have really gotten some traction in markets across North America, and though I'd grant that part of this phenomenon involves consumers either liking--or getting over--the pinkness of these wines, I'd assert that their appreciation of them is mostly about the youthfulness, freshness and purity of dry rosés. Professional tasters know that color is misleading in almost all rosés, which have only minute amounts of tannin from brief maceration or blending of just a bit of red wine into a base of white.
The upshot of this is that rosés do not sit in a grey area between red and white wines; rather, they are vastly closer to whites than reds. What are consumers finding when they find that they like the taste of dry rosé? That they like wines that are very fresh and young and unadulterated by oak or malolactic fermentation. Which is to say that the consumer turn to dry rosé is another important manifestation of the general trend I'm highlighting here.
4) One last example should serve to seal my main point. If you tasted a lot of wine a decade ago, I'd ask you to think about the flavor profile of wines based on Sauvignon Blanc made in the New World. If you were paying close attention and have a good memory, I bet you'd agree that there was no particular profile to these wines. If you opened a bottle from California or Australia or South Africa, you had no idea until you tasted it whether it would tasted more like a French wine from Sancerre in the Loire or Graves in Bordeaux. Your wine might have been barrel fermented or aged, or it might have been vinified entirely in stainless steel. The grapes might have been sourced from a cool climate, accenting the citrus side of Sauvignon akin to Sancerre, or from a relatively warm climate emphasizing melon fruit notes. The grapes might include a sizeable portion of Semillon, as in most Graves bottlings, or have been limited to Sauvignon Blanc, as in the Loire.
Is that still true today? Absolutely not. Something like 95% of wines now made from Sauvignon Blanc in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Uruguay or Italy are made in the Sancerre mold rather than the oaked, malolactic-fermented, Semillon-influenced Graves style.
We could argue over whether this is a triumph for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé or one for New Zealand's Marlborough district. But there can be no argument that it is a triumph for lightness over richness, for freshness over toastiness, for linear acidity over ripe breadth, and for primary fruit over secondary cosmetic overlays. There is still a place in the world for the Graves style, and it is not just in Graves. There are very nice wines made in this profile in various places, and they have their merits and appropriate usages. But it is very interesting to note that the Graves style probably comprised something like 65% of California's Sauvignon Blancs a decade ago, and that the figure is down below 10% today.
Adding all of this up, we can conclude that the wine world has finally made a major turn in the past couple of years, and that the turn shows a definite direction.
It is significant and perhaps a bit ironic that the shift in favor of lighter, fresher wines--which is a profile closely associated with cool winegrowing regions--has occurred just as global warming has become a generally recognized reality in the wine world. If you want to know which way the wind will be blowing in the next few years, I think I've got a pretty good guess: The next decade will be marked by a welter of new efforts to make wines in a cool-climate style across an increasingly warm globe.
Mark my words: You're going to hear a lot about efforts to prolong growing seasons and "hang time" by planting in cooler zones and on slopes with indirect sun exposure. Likewise, you'll hear a lot about slowing the accumulation of sugars in wine grapes while accelerating the physiological ripening of stems and seeds, and about lowering alcohol conversions or removing alcohol from finished wines. Consumers are demanding cool wines from a warming world, and the next decade's news will be about how the wine trade will manage to give them what they want.