How Sweet it is – The Growing Sweet Wine Trend

Is the table set for a boom in varietal sweet table wines in the U.S., wines that are known to have some residual sugar (RS) instead of being a wink and a smile from the wine business?  The tea leaves say, “Yes.”

I touched on the “knowing” sweet wine topic earlier this year in a post about Jam Jar, a stated semi-sweet Shiraz that, according to importer Cape Classics, has been enjoying robust sales since domestic launch.

And, while it’s common for a domestic white wine, generally under $12 a bottle, to have a whisper of RS, what is not common is reporting that there’s residual sugar in it.

That said, I think we (the royal “we” as in the collective of all wine enthusiasts who participate symbiotically with the wine business) are on the cusp of participating or being swept up in a sweet wine trend – the kind of trend that takes sweet wines out of the back alley and onto Broadway as an accepted varietal wine while no longer being viewed as a quaff only for the uninitiated, or dessert, instead being seen as something that is occasion appropriate and can be paired on the dinner table.

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I note this because much of what I find interesting in writing about wine is looking for disparate common threads that can be tied together.  Related to sweet wine, over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve seen these disparate common threads and, as they say, once is an accident, twice, a coincidence and three times is a trend ...

Simply put, Muscat, typically known as Muscato or Moscato on the wine shelf is growing … big time growing ... as a still wine, not an Italian sparkler nor as a dessert wine.

The first “hmm …” moment regarding Moscato came with an announcement from the NextGen Wine Competition this summer, based on judging from a twenty-something panel, awarding a non-vintage Barefoot Cellars Moscato a “Best in Show” award.  Was this a fluke worthy of derision?  Some thought so …

… Until a larger context started framing itself ...

The second reference I saw came in a presentation from the Wine Industry Financial Symposium last month. In that presentation, in response to a question posed to wine industry leaders, “Have your sales begun to revive? For which products at which price points?”  The anonymous, non-attributed response came:

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“I would say at the low-end, Muscato is the varietal that is standing out. There is not enough Muscato right now in California to feed the beast. It is a sweet wine, similar to our Pinot Grigio at the lower end. Every producer that can ramp it up is.”

The third flag I saw is a Fresno Bee article on Moscato (also in September) that noted in reference to the Muscat grape, (quoting Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno):

“Now, we are at the point where demand may be outpacing the current supply.”

DiBuduo estimates that acreage will increase by at least 50% over the next two years, from 3,245 acres in production statewide today.

Among the reasons for the surge is a growing number of muscat wine drinkers.

Sales of Moscato—a muscat wine—rose 78% during a one-year period ending in June, said Jon Fredrikson of Woodside-based Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, a wine industry consulting firm.

Finally, as a capstone, I paid a visit to the wine section at Sam’s Club this past weekend – in a bin, nearly empty, next to nearly full bins of other white wines, was the Terra d’Oro Moscato, a wine that clearly was selling extremely well against other whites.

Is this all coincidence?  No.  Moscato is coming on strong.

The reason for the growth, organic as it may be, is harder to pin down.

Anecdotally, I think there are four reasons:

1) Distribution.  Large wine producers are able to get Moscato varietal wines to large retailers at competitive prices, where many people are buying their “value” wines

2) No stigmas. Gen. Y doesn’t carry legacy stigmas of what to drink, or not to drink.  And, even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.  Plus, they are inveterate explorers drinking globally from the word “go” and Moscato d’Asti from Italy is a pleasant introduction to the varietal

3) Rising consumption and new consumers.  With the rising wine consumption in the U.S. there are some late converts, like my Mom for example – Age 60 +.  She is slowly but surely taking the path of palate development, but White Zinfandel wasn’t her gateway wine, it was semi-sweet varietal wines from Midwest wineries.  Moscato is tailor made for her as she evolves to Riesling and soft tannin reds.  Her journey is one shared by many.

4) Quality.  Even hard-bitten wine enthusiasts have to admit that Moscato is an enjoyable glass of wine, pleasingly floral, typically balanced, and able to be made with some character, with reasonably low alcohol and an inexpensive price.

In sum, keep an eye on growth of not just Moscato, but semi-sweet varietal wines in general – they will have higher price points, but still with a “value” orientation and they won’t be garishly packaged on the bottom shelf of the wine aisle, having earned a higher degree of respect in the court of wine consumer opinion.

Reference Link
USDA grape varietal acreage in California table