Recently a seminar participant approached me after a tasting and asked:” So what do you think will be the next big white wine?”
For a moment I was startled. As far as I know, chardonnay is still enjoying worldwide popularity, but certainly this cannot go on forever. Sooner or later consumers will start looking for a white wine that can “turn on” their taste buds more than the present ubiquitous grape.
After considering the alternatives sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc, viognier, even Muller-Thurgau, I settled on Rheinriesling.
Sauvignon blanc may be a contender, as it performs well in many regions but fails to produce pinnacle wines. It does not age well either.
Ditto for pinot gris, or Graubungunder as the Germans call it of pinot grigio the Italians.
Viognier can be delightful, but grows in a limited geographical range, i.e the climate must be warm but not cool Piedomont and Ontario or even British Columbia could be suitable for viognier, if yields are kept low, but the wine fails to age well.
Gewurztraminer and muscats grow well in even fewer regions. They perform well in hot climes.
Pinot blanc does well in Alsace and Burgundy, and in some locations in Germany. Elsewhere it produces less than stellar wines.
Muller-Thurgau is too prolific and fruity even perfumey to many wine lovers.
Riesling, the true Riesling i.e. Rheinriesling, I believe is the next big white wine.
After indicating my belief, I said: “ Let me explain”. After all one can just toss out an idea. If it comes to fruition, then it is fine. If not, one can always say that it was just an idea.
Riesling has all the attributes consumers look for – it is fruity, ranges from bone dry to super sweet, ages well, can be prolific at the expense of flavour, lights, reflects the terroir well, and goes with all kinds of food pending sweetness level.
In Alsace it can deliver 15 – 16 tons per hectare, in Australia 20 – 21 tons without loosing too much of its profile characteristics.
Of course, most people think of Germany when riesling is mentioned. That country has 22 000 hectares of riesling planted, but there are many other countries with considerable acreage. Washington State, New York State, in the USA, Ontario, British Columbia, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, northern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia are only some.
It is just a matter of time for a major American winery’s marketing department to decide to promote riesling, and then actually do it. Up to when Mr. Mondavi senior decided to promote sauvignon blanc with as fancy name Fume Blanc few consumers were interested in tasting let alone buying this varietal wine.
Michael Mondavi, the CEO of Robert Mondavi winery before it was sold to a conglomerate, told me that they have conducted thousands of experiments with visitors by giving them three white wines blind in identical glasses (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling) and 70 per cent indicated their preference for the riesling.
Yet this outstanding grape has never achieved the popularity of chardonnay in the past 80 years. Is it the name? Is chardonnay more malleable hence people can identify oak aromas, and feel good about their “discovery”? I don’t know. What I know is that chardonnay is relatively easy to grow and can be fashioned to whatever a particular market wants, demands, and needs. It is a chameleon grape you can ferment it in oak, or ferment it in stainless steel and age it in oak barrels, or just ferment it and not age it at all, or age it in different oak barrels and blend it, make it sweet, or super sweet as icewine. The list is long.
Riesling on the other hand is elegant, yields well, requires attention to detail in growing and winemaking, but rewards the winemaker with appealing wines few would get tired of.
For all these reasons riesling will become the nest big white wine, I believe.