Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Day After Tomorrow (or, The Next Big Thing)

Coloradan Syrah is the next big thing. Spanish Txakolina is the next big thing. Arizonan Malvasia is the next big thing. Greek Assyrtiko is the next big thing. Californian Chardonnay is the next big thing. French Sauvignon blanc is the next big thing. Mexican Nebbiolo is the next big thing. Oregonian Pinot noir is the next big thing. There is no next big variety when it comes to wine. People who claim grape X is the next big thing are wrong. People who claim that the traditional big grape varieties are the only important grapes and "there's really no good reason for consumers to seek out esoteric wines" are also wrong. The closest thing to the next big thing in wine is variety itself: diversity.

We can look at the trend of wine diversity through the lens of biological concept of biodiversity. Biodiversity may seem like a simple concept that only entails the absolute number of species. More species equals more diversity. But upon closer examination, biodiversity also includes population variability and geographic distribution. Let's explore how each of these measures can relate to the wine world using the concepts of biodiversity introduced by R.H. Whittaker, in the 1950s, to describe changes in species composition and abundance across environmental continua.

First, there’s the raw number of wines (for the purposes of this post, a bottle of wine is an individual organism and its product line is its species) that exist. This is akin to total species diversity in the global ecosystem, or gamma-diversity. Fact: Many more wines are available to the general public now than at any point in history. Guess what? In the near future there will be even more wines produced and sold (or at least for sale) than this year. Obviously unending growth is untenable, but the general trend will be more wineries producing more wine. This means more diversity in the market and more choices for consumers.

When you scale down to a specific subunit of the wine world, the abundance of wines is what is called alpha-diversity. You can use α-diversity to compare and contrast regions. California has a greater α-diversity of wine than Colorado. α-diversity also fluctuates more easily as wine fashions change. In some regions α-diversity is greater than it used to be, and in other regions it is less than it used to be. Some regions have specialized to produce single varieties. Certain regions that used to be popular are no longer as diverse as they once were (i.e., Madiera).

However, even within regions that may, on the surface, appear to be more homogenous than in the past diversity may be increasing. Beta-diversity is the idea of differentiation of similar species within a habitat. Let's take Napa Valley as an example. Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for 40.8% and Chardonnay accounted for 17.5% of the 2014 harvest by tonnage. Those two cultivars are what Napa is really known for. Sure, there are seven or eight producers making Ribolla Gialla from a tiny vineyard in Napa, but Cab and Chard are king and queen.

But when you look more closely at the apparent consolidation of grape production, of a once more heterogenous valley, to focus mostly on two cultivars you actually see a differentiation of Cabernet Sauvignon wines. It is not uncommon for individual wineries to produce ten different Cabernets, all with different characteristics. The sheer number of wineries in Napa now has caused them to differentiated in terms of style. The Chardonnay category (let's associate this with a genus) in the Napa Valley (the habitat) has a greater differentiation of β-diversity than existed even just a decade ago. Californian Chardonnay isn’t only big and buttery anymore. There’s a lot more to Chardonnay than mass-produced, off-dry Chardonnay lathered with toasted oak and butter. Chardonnay can mean many things, and that is a good thing. But, yes, it still wildly popular and makes Grüner Veltliner look like a timid little mouse in the corner next to the giant elephant in the room. At least there is a mouse and thankfully the elephant (I like to call him Doug) has figured out how to clone itself into a variety of intriguing personalities (let's name the clones Lance, Rico, and Lenny). Pat on the back to anyone who can figure out that barely tangential reference...

Just as there is no next big wine critic coming that will alter the wine landscape, there is no next big grape cultivar that will sweep across store shelves.  Cultivars will come into favor and fall right back out. Regions will become popular and then the public may lose interest just as fast, similarly to how wine publications and wine writers come and go. But that doesn't mean that we are not seeing a diversification and a socialization of wine opinions. More people are creating and consuming wine opinions (written - digital and print, graphic, and audiovisual representations) than in the past.

Likewise, we are seeing a diversification and a socialization of wine itself. Simply put, we are seeing more types of wine from more places than we have in the past, and society is learning about and accepting these non-traditional wines as a normal part of what it means to drink wine. Not every wine consumer will interact with (or even believe) this changing wine climate in the same way, but the climate of the wine world is indeed changing.

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