In the 1980s and 90s, the next big thing in wine was White Zinfandel. In the 2010s, it was sweet red blends. So, what’s the next varietal-driven wine that will delight consumers and propel industry growth?
There’s “healthy” and low- and no-alcohol wine, which have been topping trends list for the past couple of years. Organic, sustainable, and “natural,” have certainly gained some momentum. But varietally, no one is quite sure what the next big winner may be—or even if the very concept of varietals is as relevant as it used to be.
“I think the industry is so broad that it’s not a question about varietal type verses no/low versus organic versus ‘better for you,’” says John Gillespie, founder and CEO of Wine Opinions, a leading U.S. wine market research company. “They each have some degree—or no degree—of importance to one segment of consumers or another. And there are countless ways to think of ‘segments.’”
In other words, wine might have changed so much in the past 10 to 15 years that trends are not about varietals, but about what Gillespie has identified as those specific consumer segments. In this type of market, wine drinkers aren’t looking, for example, a Chardonnay as much as they’re looking for an organic wine first and worry about which varietal to buy later. Or they look for a “better for you,” “healthy” wine, which could mean low sugar, low alcohol, and/or low calorie. In these cases, whether the wine is made with Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc isn’t the reason for purchase as much as the sugar content, ABV, or whatever else the consumer may consider a “health-conscious” decision.
“Yes,” says Lulie Halstead, the CEO of the Wine Intelligence consultancy in Britain. “I would say that varietals, although still a key driver for consumers, are becoming less important regarding overall wine choice.”
Which, if true, is quite revolutionary. Varietals have been the foundation of the U.S. wine industry’s growth since the advent of the first such wines, the Fighting Varietals of the late 1980s. These wines are usually given credit for helping start the almost 50-year U.S. boom, which saw this country become the world’s biggest wine consumer.
The Fighting Varietals, popularized by Glen Ellen and Fetzer, were among the first accessibly priced wines that listed the name of the grape on the label. This is something that had really never been done in the U.S. before; until then, producers had followed European tradition and called its products things like Chablis and Burgundy, even though they were neither. Consumers loved the Fighting Varietals approach, and started buying wine because it was Chardonnay or Merlot or whatever for the next five decades.
But, apparently, not anymore?
Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, who oversees research for the Wine Market Council, says he has seen a number of varietals come and go without becoming the next big thing. That includes Riesling and Moscato, which would seem to fill a niche for light-bodied, fruity, and semi-sweet wines—but didn’t. Meanwhile, White Zinfandel is “dying.” As such, successful producers like Stella Rosa aren’t necessarily associated with a varietal, but with a house style.
Rosé and sparkling wine, meanwhile, have room for growth away from their bases, say analysts. That means the Provençal style for the former and Champagne and Prosecco for the latter. Halstead, in fact, says sweeter, fruit-infused sparkling could break out. There might also be a chance that a less New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc could make a dent in the market, attracting Pinot Grigio drinkers who are looking for something else.
And, says Miller, there might also be room for growth among fruit-flavored and fruit wines. But that’s hardly the kind of development that the mainstream wine business would want to count on.
What has to happen for a varietal to become a trend, according to Miller, is that varietal to “become something more” than it really is. That is, the varietal would need to become a category that consumers can easily identify, connect with, and purchase with purpose. It could be a brand name, a style, or regional designation. Ideally, it would do what White Zinfandel did, since that wasn’t even a thing until it showed up on store shelves. Another example: red blends, which struggled to get any footing until given clever names and some sweetness. (Apothic and Menage a Trois caught the consumer’s fancy in a way Super Tuscans never did.)
How this might happen is anyone’s guess. That’s because, as Gillespie points out, consumers who look for “healthy” wines aren’t looking for varietals; those who favor sweet wines aren’t seeking specific varietals, either.
Sound confusing? Almost certainly. Who, a decade ago, would have thought that bourbon-barrel wine would be a thing, let alone a category with dozens of producers and perhaps hundreds of SKUs?
But, if what the analysts are saying is true, this concept would require an entirely new way of looking at the U.S. wine market and wine drinker.
Jeff Siegel is an award-winning wine writer, as well as the co-founder and former president of Drink Local Wine, the first locavore wine movement. He has taught wine, beer, spirits, and beverage management at El Centro College and the Cordon Bleu in Dallas. He has written seven books, including “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine“.