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Major Producers Betting Their Green on a Comeback for Light Red

Times Wine Writer

It isn’t a trend yet, but a number of major wine producers are betting money that light red wine will make a major comeback by next year, and perhaps by as early as this summer.

And the name will be Gamay Beaujolais.

Red wine has rarely been a big deal in the United States. Total sales of red wine lag that of white wine by a huge margin. It is estimated that total red wine sold in the United States last year accounted for only one bottle in five.

However, for a number of related reasons, wine makers in California say they see a huge demand for lighter-styled red wine in the coming months, especially in the premium segment, at about $5 to $7.50 a bottle.

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They say that heavy red wine, like heavy metal, appeals to a rather select crowd. They also say that heavy red is slowly pricing itself out of the market, and they feel that such heavier red wines will increasingly be placed in a celler to age.

Surge of Interest

This trend of aging the richer red wines will lead, they feel, to a surge of interest in lighter, more readily consumable red wines, especially in restaurants.

The concept that light red is an attractive wine type for the 1990s came to me in early 1986 as prices for most good Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots escalated, pricing out of the market a lot of wine buyers. Still, cult buyers of big, rich, age-worthy red wines have increased recently, as has the entire category of superpremium wine.

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Add to that the short harvests in California wine country areas in 1987 and 1988, which led to a shortage of Cabernet in many wineries, which drove prices up further, widening the price gap between Cabernet and the dwindling supply of other red wine.

The production of other red wines has declined partly because of the great interest in white Zinfandel. This means that a lot of Zinfandel grapes that otherwise would have been used to make red wine are now being used to make a light-pink wine.

Demand Peaking

However, demand for white Zinfandel seems to be peaking as many consumers tire of the rather bland, innocuous aromas and tastes from so many of them. (The only white Zinfandels with any taste are those that are close to light red wine, essentially rose wines.)

One indication that light red has a future, perhaps as a next-step wine for white Zinfandel drinkers, has come in the last two years with renewed interest by wineries and consumers in Pinot Noirs made in a lighter style than before.

Previously, it was felt that a red wine had to be dense and packed with color and intensity to be a success, but in recent years the success of the Saintsbury Garnet, the new Fleur de Pinot Noir from Carneros Creek, and lighter Pinot Noirs from Domaine Laurier, Iron Horse, the Monterey Vineyard and others has led to a wave of interest in such wines.

“Restaurants like this lighter style much more than they did in the past,” said Ed Schwartz, public relations director for Pinot Noir: America, a group of 40 wineries that have banded to promote the variety.

Schwartz said a San Francisco seafood restaurant, Pacific Heights Bar and Grill, was selling two bottles of Pinot Noir a week. “Then they did a staff training program to show that Pinot Noir goes well with salmon, and during a special Pinot Noir Week promotion, they sold six and a half cases of Pinot Noir in a week.”

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Price a Deterrent

But to some people, Pinot Noir still is a heavy wine, and often its price ($10 to $18) is too high for the average consumer.

Ah, but Gamay Beaujolais, well, that’s another story. Gamay Beaujolais, made like the Beaujolais wines of France and from similar grape varieties, is a wine that has received little attention from wine makers. They have made it because it filled a need in the wine spectrum and because it filled a price niche: $5 to $7.50 a bottle.

Beaujolais from France is a wine that has always sold fairly well in the United States, notably in restaurants because it matches well with food; it has the panache of being imported, and it’s usually far less expensive than Bordeaux.

But Beaujolais has the additional benefit of being chillable, the only red wine that takes a chilling. And for a lot of Americans, their beverages must be chilled or they’re not interested.

Charles Shaw Winery in the Napa Valley specializes in Gamay Beaujolais made in the French manner, using whole clusters of grapes in a special method called carbonic maceration. This method requires special equipment to make and is more costly than standard methods.

Shaw said the lack of astringency from lower tannins and more overt fruit character than are found in deeper wines are elements that make Beaujolais-styled wines blend so well with food when young. He said Cabernet usually is too savage for consuming until it has been tamed by bottle age.

Production Boosted

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Shaw said demand for his Napa Valley Gamay Beaujolais has been strong in the last year and his production is increasing rapidly.

In 1986, Shaw made 16,000 cases of Gamay Beaujolais. In 1987, production rose to 20,000 and last year it was 27,000 cases. “This year we already have (grape) contracts to make 37,000 cases,” he said.

Moreover, Hilton International is looking into the prospect of adding Shaw Gamay Beaujolais to its core wine list.

Beringer Vineyards also will move strongly into Gamay Beaujolais this year. Production of the wine always was modest, but in 1987 the winery asked George Duboeuf of France’s Beaujolais district to consult and began using more sophisticated techniques.

That required a $2 million investment in equipment, and president Mike Moone said, “Our position is that it (Gamay Beaujolais) will eventually replace Cabernet Sauvignon in demand around the country, especially as Cabernet continues to escalate in price.”

Moone said Beringer made 24,000 cases of Gamay Beaujolais in 1987. After Duboeuf spent time helping wine maker Ed Sbragia in 1988, the winery made 34,000 cases and “we sold out in six weeks without doing any special promotion.” He said Beringer would make 60,000 cases of the wine this year.

Rusty Eddy, public relations director for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, said his winery’s Gamay Beaujolais sales are leaping faster than anticipated. Fetzer made 15,000 cases in 1986, 26,000 cases in 1987 and 45,000 cases last year.

Parallel Category

Moreover, Fetzer has in its line another light red wine, designated California Zinfandel, of which it made 25,000 cases last year.

Gallo, the world’s largest winery, and the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley haven’t moved into Gamay Beaujolais yet, but both have wines in a parallel category. Gallo’s is a sweeter wine called Red Rose; Mondavi has a Gamay Rose.

In 1987 Mondavi resurrected its formerly discontinued Gamay Rose, made from the same Napa Gamay grape variety that is often used in Gamay Beaujolais. Mondavi Gamay Rose is made at Mondavi’s Woodbridge facility.

Mondavi’s Woodbridge wine maker, Brad Alderson, said the wine, which is " a middle ground between white Zinfandel and a red wine,” is made a bit darker than some people might expect.

And he said it has been so successful for the last two years that his 50,000-case production hasn’t been enough to supply the demand.

“Our sales department said they could sell twice as much, but there’s a statewide shortage of the best grapes, so we have encouraged some people to plant Napa Gamay,” he said.

If anything holds back the tide of interest in Gamay Beaujolais it will be availability of top-quality grapes. The Gamay Beaujolais and Napa Gamay grape varieties are in shorter supply than at any time in the last two decades. Fewer than 3,000 tons of the varieties were crushed in California in 1988, down from a peak of 14,431 tons in 1979.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Folie a Deux Chenin Blanc ($7): An absolutely stunning example of what great Chenin Blanc is all about. This wine is made in a drier style, but with hints of melon, pineapple and spice to give the wine a delicate sweetness in the aftertaste that matches beautifully with seafood, Chinese cuisine, or as an aperitif. This is impeccable wine making.


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