From the Vineyard: How a great choice for Christmas wine emerged

By Paul Franson

If you’ve been drinking wine for any time, you’ll notice how quickly varieties go in and out of favor. Though for many years, and very quietly, grapes like little-known French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and even Thompson seedless table grapes were large components of the white wine marketed in generic jugs and boxes labeled “chablis” or “rhine.” But Chardonnay now far surpassed them and Chardonnay is the most widely grown wine grape, at least in California.

But tastes change, and in the next year or so, Cabernet will become the most widely planted grape, partly because red wines and Cab in particular have become so popular.

There’s also a continuing backlash among many wine drinkers to the rich, buttery, vanilla-flavored version of Chardonnay that had become ubiquitous, though many wineries are dialing that flavoring back.

Meanwhile, to follow up with white wines, Pinot Grigio came out of nowhere (actually northeast Italy) and became so popular that it’s now the second most popular white wine, replacing Sauvignon Blanc—though that has also undergone a big revival patterned after the racy versions from New Zealand.

Among reds, we all know how Merlot went from a darling to a discard after the movie Sideways trashed it (though it was already finding disfavor for being planted in hot areas where it suffers). That movie, combined with improving wines also helped proper Pinot Noir into great popularity; however, now mediocre cheap Pinots are threatening its reputation.

Americans long had a flirtation with Syrah, the top grape from the Rhône Valley, but it never turned into a love affair.

Meanwhile, red grapes once popular, though not always under their own names, like Petite Sirah (Durif), and a number of varieties from Spain like Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignane), Mataro (Mourvèdre in France and Monastrell in Spain), are making a comeback.

So, what happens to unloved grapes? Growers can replace the vines, but that removes them from production for about five years. Growers can graft new varieties on growing roots without much loss, or they can find a new market.

The red wine blends have become incredibly popular and are typically made from Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel and other less-popular grapes, generally with some Cabernet Sauvignon and likely other intense grapes like Petit Sirah and Petit Verdot. I find these wines are ideal for Christmas dinners and other festivities, as their luscious rich, slightly sweet flavors go well with a variety of foods.

The white blends are another matter. I’ve tasted few I like. Fortunately, there are plenty of varietal alternatives—and sparkling wine.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.


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