Wine Varietals — What to Expect in 2015

Now that 2014 has passed and we begin to look forward to what 2015 will hold for the most popular wine varieties, we see that there has been a slight shift. That’s not to say that one is better than the other, just that like all trends — wines ebb and flow with popularity. So here’s my take on eight of California’s most popular varieties.

Cabernet Sauvignon remains King of red wines. It’s the second most popular wine variety in America and will hold that position for many years to come. No other red wine we produce in California is as noble. By “noble” I mean the sheer luxuriousness of Cab’s mouthfeel. It is like having the Earth, the Sun and the Moon in your mouth, in liquid form. The greatest Cabernets come from Napa’s and Sonoma’s mountains and benches, as they always have.

Chardonnay remains the Emperor of white wines, the number one wine, red or white, in America by a huge factor. It is quite simply the most delicious, richest and most complex white wine in California. Nothing even comes close. Coastal bottlings, of course, are best. Grape growers believe in Chardonnay’s future: acreage continues to expand, year after year.

Merlot, the fourth most-popular wine in the U.S., took a bit of a hit after Sideways, the movie, seemed to criticize it — unfairly, because Merlot is a lovely wine. Not as hard in tannins as Cabernet, with a gentler mouthfeel, at its best it will continue to be one of the most hedonistic red wines we produce.

Pinot Gris came out of nowhere to become the third most-popular wine variety in America. It’s a workhorse white: fruity and spicy, whose acidity complements a wide range of foods. Americans love it because it’s not only easy to drink, but affordable.

Pinot Noir, America’s fifth most popular wine, is, texturally speaking, the opposite of Cabernet: silky, gentle and refined. Yet, it is no less complex. The best Pinots, produced from the slopes and hills along the coast, not only are wonderful on release, but will age. The greatest Pinots come from coastal valleys ranging from Santa Barbara County up to Mendocino’s Anderson Valley (and, in Oregon, the Willamette Valley).

Sauvignon Blanc is a sleeper wine. It’s the best white California produces, after Chardonnay — but it is a very different kind of wine. I’m always surprised Sauvignon Blanc isn’t more popular than it is, because it’s such a perfect dry, crisp, minerally wine, with a sophistication that comes from a bit of oak barrel aging. Acreage is up, so I think it’s got a good future.

Syrah is one of those wines critics praise, but wonder why more consumers don’t drink it. Probably because it’s easy to confuse with Shiraz (which is what Australians call Syrah) and Petite Sirah, an entirely different variety. Syrah at its best is gentle, fruity and fleshy. It has the unique quality of producing a good wine in both warmer and cooler climates.

Zinfandel is back big time. Over the years, California vintners have explored a range of styles, but the preference has now been established: balanced wines, dry and rich, with Zin’s characteristic spiciness and briary quality. Zin is the best barbecue wine ever invented; it has a great future.

Here’s wishing you a Happy New Year from all of us at Kendall-Jackson!

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.