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American Vineyard Changes

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What can 10 years do to a country’s vineyard situation? After compiling data across the states—albeit weighted by the California giant—the results are in. Some are eye-openers and some simply acknowledge the force of inertia.

What’s stayed the same is that 10 years ago America boasted a little more than a million acres of grapes and today it still does. Thompson seedless is still the leading grape variety in the country with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Concord and Merlot following 2 through 5.

What’s changed dramatically is the growth of certain grapes –some expected, some not—over the last 10 years. By far the most dramatic is Pinot gris (or Pinot grigio) which has shown a near 200% increase. To a degree this is because of this grapes’ wines bearing a close relationship in taste-nature to that of Chardonnay at much less cost. White Riesling is second in the growth rate with about a 125% increase. This is not only due to the re-discovery of this great grape’s wines by the general public but also due to the efforts of the International Riesling Foundation which has tirelessly promoted the variety across the globe. (On a much lower base—Riesling is planted to 13,500 acres while Muscat blanc is planted to only 2,600--but at a greater rate of increase, Muscat blanc—162% increase—is also on the rise, and perhaps for some of the same reasons as Riesling).

Folks who saw the movie “Sideways” will not be surprised to know that Pinot noir has jumped 70% over the decade and has now passed Zinfandel (-3.6% change) to take 6th place. Syrah has increased by nearly 25% (probably accounting to a large degree for the 90% increase—again at a much lower base—of its offspring, Petite Sirah). And Viognier—one of the world’s least planted great grapes—has jumped 70% to just over 4,100 acres nationwide.

Now, no one is crying about it as they are still world beaters, but both Chardonnay and Merlot have shown decreases over the decade, -2.7% and –6.5%, respectively.

What has declined dramatically is what you would expect. Chenin blanc is a great grape and proves itself so in the cool climate of the Loire. But in warm climate California—which boasts 99% of the total—it is used for jug whites. As such, the demand for it has fallen. Similarly, (French) Colombard, the base of some of France’s finest brandies, is used in America for cheap white blends and has declined similarly (-31%).

For the declining reds, Barbera, Grenache and Ruby Cabernet – all jug red suppliers—their fate is the same.

Cabernet-Sauvignon (9.1%), Cabernet franc (12.1%) and Sauvignon blanc (7.6%) among the biggies keep plodding along. Among the least widely planted but rapidly growing varities? Keep an eye out for Gewürztraminer, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Tempranillo.

And for those who see the inexorable homogenisation of the American vineyard:, be wary. 10 years ago the top 10 classic wine grapes accounted for 39% of the total vineyard; today, it’s 44%.

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