What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone —  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!

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18 responses

  1. I think Torrontés has a good chance of becoming the TNBT or perhaps Vermentino, which has some similar qualities to Pinot Grigio (thus, not as different or scary to consumers), but has a fresh name and slightly more heft to it. I also think NZ wines (aside from the Kim Crawford/Sauv Blanc mini-craze) are going to only get bigger in the US.

    PS. For another view on the root cause behind the popularity of Moscato, check out this post from my colleague, Pat, here at work…his hypothesis = the hip-hop artist Drake. http://mlcwideangle.exbdblogs.com/2010/11/29/why-you-need-surge-capacity-in-your-2011-marketing-plan/

  2. PPS. (Sorry, can’t stop) I think this also highlights the importance of monitoring not only wine sales, but also monitoring social media and other consumer listening posts to get further ahead of what the TNBT is going to be!

  3. An historical note. I think that the category being exploited is “fruity and slightly sweet” with the varietal name being a point of differentiation but not the essence of the category. I haven’t really looked at the numbers, but my memory tells me that this category in the U.S. was dominated by inexpensive German wines (“Blue Nun” anyone?) in the 1970s that collapsed against the rise of White Zinfandel. How much this category has increased on a per capita basis would be an interesting research project. Both Moscato and Torrontes have similar, linalool-based, aromatics as did the German rieslings. Perhaps this is the revenge of Blue Nun.

    • Fruity and slightly sweet is right. Jim L. is right, TNBT is not a varietal, it is whatever brand or graphic comes after K-J Chard, the bland sweet wallaby, Menage a trois red, and is sweet. One thing I am sure is NOT TNBT is anything running alcohol in the high 14s or 15%. Maybe someone will notice, that to sell huge numbers of cases, you need repeat repeat drinkers. And that ain’t gonna be a 15% near-port masquerading as table wine.

  4. The author is missing the point entirely. The last big thing was Two Buck Chuck–$1.99 varietals from California’s San Joaquin Valley. The market is too fragmented now, and traditional wines in a state of radical price fluctuation and readjustment which will continue for the foreseeable future.

    I acknowledge that Moscato is popular because a new demographic has discovered a wine that not only tastes good, but they can drink over and over again. Moscato d’Asti has the kind of refreshment and crisp aftertaste that allows it. But I would caution about the New World imitators that are rushing out flabby, fruity wine. Merely sweet wine does not refresh nor have that tangy thing at the end that begs for a second sip. Blousy Muscats will be like every other fad, including white Zinfandel: eventually their popularity will peter out.

    As for Torrontes, it is not a wine I can drink a lot of. It is too flowery, like Malvasia and Viognier. And in most cases it lacks the crisp acidity that people crave in wines like northern Italian white wines. It’ll never be the next big thing.

    And if the economy doesn’t get going soon, the next big thing will be Coors.
    Randy Kemner, Proprietor
    The Wine Country
    Signal Hill, California

    • I think the Muscat-eers would be thrilled if their fad fares half as well as White Zinfandel. My hunch is that the Moscato phenomenon is happening with new wine drinkers, some of whom view Moscato not as a wine so much as something good to drink. Who knows how long their ranks will keep growing? No one knows, but I wouldn’t worry about them getting tired of “blousy” Muscats — some people don’t need/want that tang at the end. At the recent NYCWFF the number of new Moscatos being poured was impressive; and they basically tasted really good. Seems Moscato is not so hard to make well and cheap. That bodes well for the trend. But I wouldn’t count on these Moscato lovers trading over or up at all.

      The other hot category is definitely smooth, jammy red blends in the $8.99-$12.99 range. Wines grown in the lab, not the vineyard, to be sure. But they are hitting the spot for lots of red drinkers who want ripe fruit and zero structure. Apothic Red, Red Truck, Red Velvet, Menage a Trois, Coppola Rosso… the list goes on, and many are recently launched and/or owned by some very large, smart companies (Constellation launched three within the past two vintages). Unlike a limited grape/regional wine like Torrontes (excellent point by Jeff Siegel, by the way), wineries can make more of these Splendid Blendeds, as I like to call them. Lots more. So, these wines don’t say “grown, produced and bottled by…” on their back labels, but the folks drinking them do not care. It’s all good.

  5. TNBT is a great discussion topic. Rhodri Marsden notes that versatility, quality, and price are powerful pillars upon which the strength of Moscato’s ascendency is based. On this footing, one should also consider the wines of Rioja, Spain as TNBT. Their Reserva classification (as a whole) grew by 56 percent (2010 over 2009) in shipments to the United Kingdom, which is the largest export market for Rioja. Globally, wines from this region continue to outpace growth from almost every other wine producing region in the world. Studies about consumer preference domestically in Spain (where Rioja has 44 percent of the market) cite quality guarantees and the perception of the best quality at any price point as the most important factors. Another aspect of the Rioja Reservas and Gran Reservas that amazes everyone is that the best producers rely upon northern U.S. oak for slowing down the pace of aging. Taken together, there’s plenty of engaging ideas at work that could make this class into TNBT.

  6. Torrontes can’t be the next big thing. There isn’t enough of it grown in Argentina, where there is a shortage of vines. And because of the vine shortage, it isn’t grown anywhere else in the world.

    Or so every Argentine who is in the wine business has told me.

  7. The major problem I see with Torrontes is the consistency. Some producers make it an Italian Pinot Grigio style while others age it in oak to mimic California Chardonnays. The drinkers of White Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio are looking for a standard ‘recipe’ if you will across the board on their wines. Interesting article though and love TNBT topic!

  8. There are a lot of good points here… “fruity and slightly sweet” is right on the money, that’s what U.S. consumers have been drinking as long as I’ve been in the business. Are we going to see a mad rush to pump out torrontes and moscato? Maybe. However, I sometimes with that instead of striving for TNBT, winemakers would just focus on making good wine.

    • Peter, you just might predicted the next TNBT, which could be simply well made wine. I am actually hopeful as I see more and more excellent wines in lower price ranges, including California Chardonnays and Cabnernets.

  9. I would like for a lot of smaller unknown varieties to become TNBT (such as Tempranillo and Vermentino – mentioned by others) but as much as we want to have trends like this in wine, consumers have to understand that these boutique grape varieties are not grown in the masses and even if a producer wanted to graft over existing vines, it is still going to take a few years before a good harvest can be produced, and another few before the wine is finished. Meaning, if we think every producer in CA is going to make Tempranillo, they are wrong. There is only 942 acres of it planted in CA as of right now; only so much can be made, and by the time we plant more and make more, something else will be taking it’s place on the popularity pole.

  10. I would like to see people ask more about HOW the wine is made instead of what varietal it is.

    But to play along here, I would like to see Vinho Verde or Petillant-Naturel become popular….

  11. I think Tempranillo has a snowball’s chance in hell in becoming the next big thing in wine. I don’t think the Spaniards have a good idea what motivates the USA consumer, and most of their labels have too much of an old-world bias to really capture the US consumer’s attention.

    The ‘next big thing’ is right under our noses. That is, MORE RS!!! Moscato is huge, and right behind it is the Sweet Red/Red Blends with huge levels of RS. A lot of people say they like ‘dry’ but then they are drinking Menage a Trois Red! And then there are people that seek out sweet, and until recently the wine market had little to offer them other than White Zin. Now, some folks are finally getting it. Generous sweetness without shame (and high alc) is where you’ll see growth, IMHO…

  12. Short time reader and first time poster, but i want to start with a note of thanks for your excellent Blog. I know I will visit ofter.

    My vote would be on Torrontes with a caveat on the potential for Argentine wines to step up production without compromising quality. Why?

    Torrontes is cheap, with really good examples from wineries like Crios and Trivento selling in the USA for $10-11.

    Torrontes tastes good.

    Torrontes pairs well with popular food that is normally very hard to get a complementary food and wine match. Mexican, Chinese, Thai all love Torrontes and vice-versa.

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