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The revolution in sparkling wine

Sparkling isn't just for weddings anymore.

Sparkling wine isn’t just for weddings anymore.

Add another change to the wine business, and one that may be even more surprising than moscato and sweet red wine or cheap pinot noir: The popularity of sparkling wine that isn’t from Champagne.

Because, for most wine drinkers for most of the last 60 years, there were only two kinds of sparkling wine — French Champagne and the very cheap U.S. stuff that tasted like flat 7-Up (and that still dominates U.S. sales). There was bubbly from elsewhere, of course, but quality was poor and there wasn’t much of available, even if someone wanted to try it.

That has changed over the past couple of years, as I wrote in a story in this month’s Beverage Media trade magazine — and just in time for the holiday bubbly season, when we drink as much as half of all the sparkling wine sold during the year. In this, it ?s not so much that Champagne fell out of favor; rather, improvements in quality, increased availablity, and very good prices helped introduce consumers to the Spanish-made Cava, the Italian Prosecco and even fizzy moscato. And, as with sweet red and cheap pinot, consumers discovered they liked the wines.

Or, as one very perceptive retailer told me: “They really don ?t care where it ?s coming from, as long as it ?s different. They aren ?t the same old, same old California sparkling wines or the same Champagne. They ?re not the same wines that have been around now and forever. ?

The story ?s highlights and a few other thoughts:

? Bubbly consumption increased by 14 percent from 2007 to 2012, compared to four or five percent (depending on the report) for all wine. Much of that growth came from non-Champagne categories, and especially from Spain (up almost five percent in 2012) and Italy. The Italian surge has been phenomenal, accounting for two-thirds of the increase in imported sales in 2012.

? It’s almost impossible to underestimate the improvement in quality over the past several years. It started with Cava and moved on to the Italian wines, all of which are cleaner, more consistent, and with fewer off notes. They taste better, as simple as that may sound.

? Bubbly drinkers are more open minded than ever, willing to try something that doesn’t come from Champagne. Much of this can be traced to price, since these wines cost as little as one-tenth of Champagne, but it’s also about more adventurous palates. That a sparkling wine made with xarel-lo or glera could be worth drinking never occurred to previous generations of sparkling wine drinkers, who were quite snobby about their bubbly.

? We’re drinking sparkling with dinner more than ever before, which is a very welcome development (as regular visitors here well know). Again, this rarely happened with Champagne, which was seen — and is still marketed — as something for a special occasion.

? Sweet sells, and especially for the Italian brands. The difference is that some of the wines are not just sweet, but well made, something that isn’t necessarily true for many of the sweet reds.

? The generational divide that we’ve seen elsewhere in the wine business has shown up here, too. Younger wine drinkers are more likely to try non-Champagne wines, not only because they’re less expensive but because they don’t know or care that they’re only supposed to drink Champagne. That’s one reason why cocktails made with sparklers are so popular. Who else but someone who wasn’t a Champagne snob would want to drink something like a Bellini, which is made with peach juice?

Photo courtesy EugeniaJoy of Kiev, Ukraine, via stock.xchng using a Creative Commons license

Wine of the week: Kono Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Kono NEW BottleNew Zealand sauvignon blanc, a hot commodity in the 1990s, is mostly just another part of the wine landscape these days. Those of us who drink it know what to expect — citrus flavors, including grapefruit and sometimes a lot of it, a good price, and not much else. This doesn’t make it bad wine; just predictable, with the advantages and disadvantages that goes with that.

Which is why I was so surprised by the Kono ($11, sample, 13%) at a tasting for double-gold medal winners from the San Francisco International Wine Competitton. It was more than that, and at a price where many of the wines are one-note grapefruit efforts. Look for some citrus, of course, but also tropical fruit in the middle (mango?), and even a bit of green herb, believe it or not. It’s rounded, surprisingly complex, and a terrific value at this price.

Two other things worth nothing: First, the company that makes the wine is owned by Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand and who mostly aren’t in the wine business. Second, the company is very proud of its Wine Spectator score, 89 points for the 2011 vintage. This is another example of the fallacy of scores — how could the wine get a double gold and be worth less than 90 points?

Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2014 $10 Hall of Fame (coming in a month) if I can find it somehere for $10.

Winebits 310: Restaurant wine, wineries for sale, top grape growers

? Wine by the glass: Restaurant wine is one of the most frustrating of all the frustrating things in wine, what with high prices, poor selection, and indifferent service. And restaurant wine by the glass programs are even more frustrating. My pal Tim McNally offers an in-depth look at what’s wrong with wine by the glass and how it can be fixed: “Lack of product knowledge, lack of good business sense, lack of staff training and lack of desire to serve the customer ?s needs all play a role in failed [wine by the glass] programs. … This is not rocket science. This is common sense with a profit reward at the end of the transaction.”

? Want to buy a winery? Talk during the recession was that any number of California wineries were ready to go under, victims of what the economic slump did to sales. But none ever seemed to fold, and no one was sure if that was because their lenders didn’t want to forclose (what’s a bank going to do with a winery?), an influx of private cash, or very quiet purchases. Now, Shanken News Daily hints at what might have happened and is still going on: “But it ?s an under-the-radar market. Plenty of wineries, faced with tough finances or generational change, are looking for buyers. But they ?re not advertising the fact.” My guess is that this part of the structural change in the wine business that started during the recession and is continuing — more consolidation, the biggest multi-nationals getting bigger, and the appearance of mid-sized big companies (for lack of a better term) like Foley Family Wines, which have been formed by combining a variety of producers who needed or wanted to sell.

? The biggest grape growers: One of wine’s enduring myths is the artisanal harvest, where the grapes are picked with loving care by the people who own the winery. The truth, of course, is much different; grape harvests for most of the world are as mechanized as corn and soybeans. This was reinforced by a report in a farming trade magazine that detailed the biggest grape growers in the country; five of the top 10 wine grape farmers are cheap wine companies, led by Bronco (which makes Two-buck Chuck) at No. 1 and E&J Gallo at No. 3. That they control their grape supply, and don’t have to buy it elsehwere, is one reason why they can sell their wine for so little.

Cheap wine, regional wine, and the typical wine consumer

Don-Quixote-Windmill

Maybe tilting at windmills is beginning to pay off for those of us who want wine to be more than scores and toasty and oaky.

Those of us who tilt at wine’s windmills — scores, snotty wine drinkers and critics, and the Catch-22 that is availability — sometimes wonder if anyone cares.

So when we find out that people do care, even the crankiest of us get big smiles. That was the case at the American Wine Society conference last month, where 500 or so of the 25 percent — the wine drinkers who consume 93 percent of all wine in the U.S. — were on hand for seminars, presentations, and the like. The people I met were open, curious, and interested in new approaches to wine — far from what I expected, given how all that tilting reinforces my natural cynicism.

What happened and what it means, after the jump: Continue reading

The Wine Curmudgeon on Dallas TV

And what difference does it make that they misspelled my name?

Because it’s the message that matters, and the message comes across loud and clear: “When you start out, all you ?re looking for is taste, if you like it it ?s a good wine, if you don ?t, you don ?t even have to finish drinking it. You can pour it down the sink. ?

Enjoy the video, and a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Channel 11 and everyone who helped make it. And it has been at least a day since I mentioned that the cheap wine book would make a terrific holiday gift, hasn’t it?

Mini-reviews 54: Beaujolais Nouveau, Cousino-Macul, McManis, 14 Hands

Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.

? Georges Dub uf Beaujolais Nouveau 2013 ($8, purchased, 12%): Much better this vintage — less banana and more oomph, including acidity that hasn’t been there for several years. It’s still not as grapey as it should be, but decent enough cheap wine. Good to see that this annual tradition is worth buying again.

? Cousi o-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Antiguas Reservas 2010 ($17, sample, 14%). Chilean red has more in common with California Central Coast style, meaning lots of juicy black fruit and a little herbal aroma, than it does with many Chilean wines.

? McManis Viognier 2012 ($12, purchased, 13.5%): Oily, very fruity (peaches?), and a little bitter on the back — decent enough, but not near the quality of the rest of McManis’ wines. California and viognier continue to be a difficult combination.

? 14 Hands Hot to Trot White 2010 ($10, purchased, 13%): Nowhere near the quality of the 14 Hands red blend, this Washington state effort has an unpleasant finish and is uneven and disjointed, with an odd fruitiness. Very disappointing.