Can Moscato Challenge Chardonnay?

Can Moscato challenge Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for dominance on the world stage?

“Classic” grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are much like the “classic” wine regions from which they reign: well-known, top-selling varietals that hold permanence in the marketplace.  However, just as with wine regions across the world, market dominance is a fluid thing and the battle continual.  While some might view Moscato as simply a trendy, secondary varietal; sales figures, brand visibility, potential for growth and permanence indicate that it is currently and will continue to be a contender in the battle for wine market share.

Prior to 2008, traditionally produced Italian Moscatos were a small and relatively niche market without a large portion of the world marketshare. Then came the release of California’s Barefoot Moscato which has since not only signaled a reinvention of the product, but revived product sales.  A low alcohol, sweet wine with approximately 6% residual sugar and 9-10% alcohol derived from the aromatic and foxy Muscat variety, it has been wildly popular among new and “non-traditional” wine drinkers.  Sales of Moscato in the United States alone grew over 75% due to top producers such as Gallo and Trinchero.  Growth in demand has so completely eclipsed other varieties that Gallo has reportedly been searching the world for bulk production as the 7,000 acres of Muscat under production in California is not enough to satiate demand.  The popularization of Moscato on the world stage has even increased domestic consumption of Moscato in Italy.   While not yet popularized in emerging Asian markets such as China where growth in wine sales outpaces the rest of the world, this sweet beverage with low-alcohol has great potential given its ability to pair with Asian cuisine and consumer preference for lower alcohol and sweet wine.

The visibility of Moscato is growing among new and well established wine drinkers.  From rap musicians such as Drake and reality stars to even hairdressers in rural America, the appeal of Moscato has been broad among new drinkers.  Statistics indicate that millennial drinkers are the primary target and critics declare that its popularity is due to this generation’s love of sweet drinks such as soda pop.  However, while these critics askew Moscato as the White Zinfandel of the 2010’s, writers such as Lettie Teague from the Wall Street Journal tout Moscato as the “Wine of 2012” due as much to its ability to pair well with and without food as its sweetness and neutrality.   Whereas Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are bypassed by much of this generation due to its ubiquity and perception as a wine for older generations, Moscato is considered young, hip, and fresh.

Moscato’s biggest hurdle in the quest to challenge dominance on the world wine stage is its relative newness and lack of perceived permanence in the market.  Classic varietals such as Chardonnay have a proven record of production and sales across the globe.   While not yet established as a world-wide producer, Moscato has that opportunity as it is a high-yielding vine that regularly produces up to 15 tons/acre in California and can be grown with success in a variety of climates from cool to hot with high varietal intensity.  From California to Australia, Italy and beyond, it is being planted and produced at a record rate.  Yellow Tail, despite being a late entrant into the Moscato market, produced 330,000 cases in 2011 alone and was expected to more than double that production in 2012.    While, consumption of wine by traditional markets such as France is declining, growing markets such as the United States and emerging markets such as China are expanding, fueling this expansion.  Market permanence is hard to predict but given that the growing markets are those with millennial and non-traditional consumers, it seems only logical that these consumers will fuel permanence in the next generation.

Moscato is a rapidly rising variety with the ability to challenge long-standing market leaders such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc due to its metoric demand in growing markets such as the United States and extreme potential in emerging markets such as China. With a high visibility among consumers and critics and potential for permanence due to its ability to be produced in varied locales, Moscato is a clear contender for dominance on the world stage of wine.  Yet, the ultimate permanent success of this variety will depend not only upon consumer connection and continued interest, but upon the industry which faces not a small challenge in encouraging these new and sometimes fickle drinkers to stick with Moscato and wine in general rather than shifting to other trendy drinks such as calemottos or microbrewed beer.