Enthusiast's Corner June 2006

The theory of wine evolution.


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In the old days—and by that I mean two or three years ago—when marketing professionals in the wine and spirits industry thought about what people in their 20s drank, they thought: Beer, cocktails, shots, ready-to-drinks, wine coolers.

How quickly things change. I just returned from WSWA (the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association) convention in Las Vegas, where much of the buzz, especially among the wine producers, was centered around the growing consumption of wine among Millennials (21- to 29-year-olds). Last year we reported on the July 2005 Gallup Poll that clearly demonstrated that wine consumption has overtaken beer consumption in this country. More recently, two very different studies, by the Wine Market Council and The Wine Institute, point to rapid, dramatic growth in wine consumption among those other than "core" wine drinkers. In other words, the young and the restless.

Why the change? Some attribute it to last year's low-carb diet craze, when beer's carb counts became a liability. Others look at the image that wine presents to this very image- and status-conscious group. Holding a glass of wine—rather than a mug of beer or a Jell-O shot—says something positive about a person's level of education and sophistication.

And what wine is that person likely to be holding? What is the variety at the very center of this revolution? Pinot Grigio. Light-bodied, simple, easy-drinking Pinot Grigio, primarily the ones imported from Italy.

Pinot Grigio recently zoomed past Sauvignon Blanc to claim the number-two white wine position, behind Chardonnay. In terms of sales of domestic and Italian bottlings, in terms of new domestic and international plantings of the grape, the rise of Pinot Grigio has been, and continues to be, astonishing.

We examine Pinot Grigio's many guises. As our contributing editors from Italy, France and America's West Coast make clear, Pinot Grigio can be made in a variety of styles. But it is the Italian style, particularly that of the northeast regions, that has captured the imagination of younger wine drinkers. Light-bodied, simple, easy-drinking and accessible, Pinot Grigio is considered an entry-level wine.

Let me stop here by saying that there's nothing wrong with simple, light and easy-drinking wine. As we enter summer months, that's exactly what's called for. And generalizations about who drinks what need to be offered with extreme caution. But it's useful, and I think valid, to think of wines like Pinot Grigio as the first step in a somewhat predictable evolution of taste and preference, coupled with increased experience and discretionary income.

As current Pinot Grigio drinkers develop their palates, they will begin to try more complex whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Eventually they'll leap over the great divide into reds: lighter and simpler wines like domestic Pinot Noir and Merlot, climbing the ladder, as it were, into more tannic, weightier and complex wines, eventually learning to savor the great Bordeaux wines, the Barolos of Italy, Malbecs of Argentina and the Cabernet Sauvignons from California.

And what of sparkling wines? Obviously, Champagne—full bodied, complex, structured, ageable—is the sparkling wine of the mature palate (and the deep pocket). But how can these younger drinkers develop a taste for bubbly? Our European contributors look at the many Champagne alternatives, from light-bodied Italian Proseccos and Spanish cavas to crémants from France. Some of these wines actually equal some Champagnes in terms of flavor and body, but are available at a much lower price.

Where are you on this evolutionary track? Hopefully, the answer is a complex one: On any given day, you can be found trying one of a spectrum of wines and styles. We're not encouraging a lock-step climb up the evolutionary ladder, step by step, but a joyous and haphazard exploration. Try other varieties, challenge your palate, and you'll reap the full benefit of this amazing beverage.

Cheers!

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