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Younger consumers are driving wine trends, and they don't want chardonnay

Younger consumers are driving wine trends, and they don't want chardonnay
Posted on November 10th, 2022

Spotting trends, especially as they are just emerging, is a major goal of winemongers — it is a business, after all.

These days, what's down (in alcohol) is up. What's actually down? California chardonnay and heavy bottles. Meanwhile, nonvintage wines and Eastern European offerings have started their ascendancies.

The contributing factors are many and varied — smoke damage from fires, the seltzer craze and ubiquitous supply-chain issues — but leading the way are shifts in consumer attitudes, especially among youthful enthusiasts.

""The younger generation is coming in and asking 'Do you have a no-alcohol section?'"" said Peter Plaehn, wine department manager and wine buyer at Surdyk's in Minneapolis. ""People in general are just becoming more aware of the alcohol.""

Plaehn said that trend even continues to celebrations, like bridal or baby showers, where everyone's got something in their hand: ""It's an occasion where people are saying, 'I'm not obliged to celebrate with alcohol.'""

Indeed, Nielsen's marketing research revealed that the nonalcoholic wine category grew 27% in 2021. And that continued for at least one month into this year. As Nikki Erpelding, Top Ten Liquors' senior director of retail sales, noted: ""Dry January was bigger than ever this year.""

The lower-alcohol movement is just as robust. ""I get at least one customer every time I'm in the store asking about lower-alcohol wines,"" Erpelding said.

Again, it's the younger generations driving this bandwagon. They have embraced ""natural"" wines, in which the grapes often are picked early and thus have lower ABV (alcohol by volume) levels. They also favor European varieties, and those wines tend to have less alcohol because the shorter growing season means less sugar, and therefore lower ABVs. Among them: Gamay from Beaujolais, Txakolina from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal and many reds and whites from Slovenia, Hungary, Georgia and other countries that have evolved from Soviet bloc-era plonk co-ops to making truly distinctive wines.

In the opposite corner: stateside chardonnays, particularly from our largest wine-producing state. ""California Chardonnay is dead to millennials in its traditional form,"" Plaehn said. ""It's a dead section at Surdyk's. I'm having a hell of a time moving things out of the section to bring in other offerings.""

Erpelding put it even more starkly: Younger people ""really don't want to drink their mom's wine.""

Timeless blends emerging

Meanwhile, building on the success of boxed wines and perennial favorite Marietta Old Vine, a zinfandel-based red that has never had an date on the label, are nonvintage bottles. You won't find a date on the label — and aside from cork dorks shopping at the higher end, in Erpelding's view, ""most people don't care.""

Eschewing a specific vintage allows vintners to mix and match lots from different years to make the tastiest blend possible. I've recently savored delicious, supercheap, undated libations including Arraez Calabuig Macabeo, Sans Finley Road Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, Viña Zorzal Rey Noble Garnacha and Centorri Moscato di Pavia. And if anything matters more in wine than deliciousness, I'd love to hear about it.

But there's another factor in play: climate. It is farming, after all. Fires have wreaked havoc in California and southern Europe. ""Some people didn't make any 2020"" because of smoke damage, Plaehn said, ""and there's going to be a big gap. You're really going to start seeing it in a year or so.""

It's quite possible that some of that fermented grape juice also will come in lighter packaging. Heavy bottles gained favor over the past decade or three because winery owners thought weight equals gravitas. Some still do, but others have shed the heftier glass if only to reduce shipping costs and/or carbon footprints.

(A special shoutout to the estimable producer Ridge, which not only goes light on the bottles but also lists all of a wine's ingredients on the back label.)

Meanwhile, boxed wines doubled in volume in 2020 — ""pandemic packaging"" — and have not slowed down since.

Exclusivity matters

Also expanding their reach are, for lack of a better word, ""house"" wines. A few restaurants carry them, but they're a bigger deal in retail. Especially big-box retail, with Charles Shaw ""Three Buck Chuck"" at Trader Joe's, the often-stellar Kirkland wines at Costco and countless generic labels at Total Wines & More leading the way. Target and grocery stores have gone this route, as well.

Decades after Haskell's Jack Farrell started unearthing exclusive direct imports, locally owned retail stores are getting in on the action by cutting deals in which they get all of a winery's potables that come into the market.

""That,"" said Erpelding, ""lets us tell customers that 'this is a really good wine that you can't find anywhere else.' … You're seeing much more of this kind of thing.""

And that carries more weight than any bottle.

  • Trendspotting
  • Are your tastes in line with what experts are seeing as emerging trends? Find out with these recommendations.
  • No alcohol
  • These wines are worth checking out even in months besides Dry January:

Giesen Non-Alcoholic Sauvignon Blanc ($16): Their ""regular"" sauv blanc has been a great intro to Kiwi wines, and this is way more than a pale imitation. (OK, it is pale.) Giesen's nonalcoholic riesling and pinot grigio are worth a look, as well.

Vinada Iberian Gold ($8 for 187 ml, $18 for 750 ml): If ""bubble-icious"" isn't in the dictionary, it should be, and a picture of this Spanish wine could run with the definition. The lovely color is a mere bonus with this soft but crisp and expressive gem.


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