Tuesday, February 7, 2023 Feb 7, 2023
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The Next Merlot

Exotic-sounding regions are gaining in popularity.
By Todd Johnson |

Let us all bow our heads for a brief moment and pay homage to that lowliest of lows: the wine cooler. It is with this super sweet, easy-to-gulp libation that many of us chartered our first course into the complex sea of oenology. After all, a teenager’s palate prefers simple flavors. (Milk shakes and cheese-flavored puffs, anyone?) And, honestly, which sounds more appealing to a 19-year-old: Chateau Latour or Bartyles & James?

As our tastes evolved and our pocketbooks deepened, those cheap wine coolers gave way to the fruity White Zinfandel boom of the ’80s, which led to a carefree fling with warm, buttery California Chardonnays. But adults drink red wine—or so we assumed—and, in the ’90s, we took to soft, round Merlots, intoxicated (quite literally) with the wine’s low tannins and dark, rich red allure.
Now we stand at a crossroads. Ever searching for the next big thing, we’ve tired of Merlot and find many Cabernet Sauvignons simply too brash and bold to sip. Budding wine connoisseurs are left swirling their empty goblets, awaiting the latest craze. Funny thing is, it might already be here.

“Shiraz, definitely,” says Ray Wheeler, owner of The Liquor Shoppe. “In fact, Australian wines have been some of our best sellers.” The grape Ray refers to is actually known as Syrah outside of Australia and gained its initial popularity in France’s Rhone Valley. The hearty Syrah grows best in warm regions like California, Chile, and Australia and produces a soft, fruity flavor with hints of blackberries, black currants, and plum. Its smoky essence is a pleasant departure from the sometimes strong, peppery finish of lesser Merlots. And best of all, most Syrah and Shiraz can be had for a song. A nice Aussie or Chilean bottle often tops out at $16.

“One thing New Zealand, Australian, and Chilean wines teach people is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy a nice bottle of wine,” says Mike Tiefel, general manager and wine director of Marty’s. “The Merlot craze might have died down, but the wine’s popularity was a good thing. It taught people that they could find a red wine they would enjoy drinking. Now people are experimenting and discovering wines like Syrahs and Red Zinfandels.”

Zinfandel is similar to Syrah in that it is lighter than Merlot and Cabernet in style with a peppery, robust flavor, depending on its maturity. Though primarily a California grape, Zinfandel can also be found in Australia and South Africa. Mike notes that his wine shop is seeing “a lot of interest in this grape.”

But with hot Texas temperatures stretching deeper into the autumn with each passing year, people are searching for a lighter alternative. And it’s the tart Sauvignon Blanc that’s capturing the public’s fancy.

“It’s clean and crisp, perfect for summer,” explains Ray. Though he has seen customer interest in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, the Aussies still win the popularity contest. “We had a tasting the other night and pitted a New Zealand one against a lovely Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc blend from Australia,” Ray says. “The Aussie bottle won hands down, at least from a sales perspective.”

So perhaps the question isn’t what will be The Next Merlot. It’s more like what will be the next hot region. Though Australian wines—with their low price points—seem to be leading the charge, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa aren’t far behind. They all share two things: low prices and locales that sound way more exotic than Sonoma or Napa. For fad-happy Americans who are becoming more wine savvy with each popped cork, these regions just might be the next big thing. But don’t rule out those pesky wine coolers. The ’80s are back in style, you know.