Newswise — Wine, you may already know, is very big business in California. The state is the world's fourth-leading producer after France, Italy and Spain, and domestic sales of California wine reached a record retail value of $34.1 billion in 2016.
Faculty and students in viticulture across the California State University are playing their part in the continued growth and innovation of the industry, both through research and experimenting with different and better ways of making wine. We asked CSU experts in the field to share their predictions about what consumers can expect in the new year for wine.
1. Fewer sulfites. Sulfites have long been used as a preservative to help control spoilage of wine by microorganisms. But they've also been linked to allergies and other health problems, so the chemicals are highly regulated.
Winemakers are now experimenting with ways to reduce the concentration of sulfites and create healthier wines with fewer additives, says Miguel Pedroza, Ph.D., assistant professor of enology at Fresno State. "It's an interesting new trend … something you might find more on the shelves, especially from younger winemakers."
2. More "off-dry" wines. Did you know there's a technical definition for what makes a wine sweet or dry? Sweet wines have more than 30 grams of residual sugar per liter, while dry wines have fewer than 10 grams, according to Winespectator.com. Then there are the ones that fall between the two categories — called "off-dry" or "semi-dry" wines.
Viticulture students at Fresno State are studying the emerging off-dry/semi-dry trend and working with Dr. Pedroza to conduct research on off-dry rosé made with Barbera, a red Italian grape with high acidity. "What's nice about Barbera is [that] acidity is usually associated with the freshness in white wines. So Barbera is an interesting grape for making rosé," Pedroza explains.
His students are looking at what happens when fermentation is stopped before the sugar is consumed by yeast, creating a rosé that's more similar to dry wine.
"Young winemakers [are] exploring the limits and quantity of sugar," says Pedroza. "[This type of wine] is more simple, more approachable, an easy drinking experience. If you're switching, for example, from beer, it's kind of a nice first step."
3. Less oak. Storing and aging wine in oak barrels is a common practice; depending on how oak is used, the wood transfers desirable aromas to wine — specifically notes of vanilla, smoke and spices. "We always get a benefit from oak; it brings more complexity to wine, it brings texture elements, astringency, slight bitterness," explains Pedroza. "If you use the right proportions [of the oak], that plays a positive aspect in wine quality."
That said, using oak barrels can also result in wines "in which you could only smell [the] oak character and not the grape or the varietal," he adds. So some winemakers are managing how much oak flavor goes into their wine, seeking to create fruit-driven wines that display more of the varietal character of the wines, he continues.
"There are different tools we can use in the industry to control that — you can age or preserve your wine in a stainless steel tank and add oak chips, to give that oak-y character to the wine." The result is a "less-oaked" flavor to wine — an emerging practice that increases the diversity of wines and also encourages winemakers to become more aware of the quality of the grapes and the vineyards associated with their wine, Pedroza says, noting "that's a nice new trend, having less oak in wines."
4. More marketing to Millennials. Both Pedroza and Marianne McGarry Wolf, Ph.D., a professor of wine business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, say the wine industry needs to pay close attention to the drinking habits and preferences of younger audiences to draw them to wine.
Pedroza thinks Millennials' interest in healthier lifestyles pairs well with vino. "Because wine is usually consumed with food, it's a different way of consumption …. You don't drink as much as you do with beer [and] you drink less because you're eating."
But Dr. Wolf adds that craft beers remain a major competitor: "People in their 20s and 30s that are wine purchasers allocate more of their alcohol consumption to beer than wine," says Wolf, who is conducting research on 1,000 wine consumers in San Luis Obispo County. The results of the survey show that Millennial wine consumers allocate 41% of their typical monthly alcohol consumption to beer or craft beer and only 37% to wine. Meanwhile, non-Millennials allocate 29% of their typical monthly alcohol consumption to beer or craft beer and 57% to wine.
Those figures could change, however, thanks to social media. Wolf says wine consumers that use Facebook to get information about wine are more likely to go wine tasting, have purchased wine from multiple countries, and purchase rosé. Also, the Facebook users are using friends and family and magazines, in addition to winery websites and Instagram, to get information about wine.