Most malbec wine from Argentina bears the signature flavors of dark raisins and blackberry jam. As that dark flavor profile falls out of favor, the country’s winemakers have been shifting away from so-called “fruit bombs” toward leaner, fresher, more food-friendly wines. While traditional Argentinian malbec hovers around 15.5% ABV, new wave malbecs have a lower ABV of 13 to 13.5%.
In Mendoza, at Traslapiedra winery, Juan Facundo Suarez follows the advice of his great-grandfather and tries to avoid “over-ripeness,” striving instead to bottle wines that are low in alcohol and oak, yet high in freshness. At Familia Zuccardi, Sebastián Zuccardi also aims for easy-drinking malbec by aging in concrete instead of oak barrels. Likewise, most of the wines under the Michelini Bros. label balance acidity, texture, and floral aromas with little to no oak. Many of today’s winemakers in Argentina favor shorter aging and less intense extraction to produce lighter malbecs with more snap and zest. And they are well worth seeking out.
Alcohol sales from U.S. stores grew 26.5% between mid-March and mid-May compared to the same time last year, according to market research firm Nielsen. Yet while e-commerce sales are growing, analysts say that losses from closed restaurants, bars, festivals, and sporting arenas are quickly eclipsing those gains. Global alcohol sales will drop 12% this year, according to IWSR, a firm that tracks international alcohol sales. The $10 billion travel retail industry has also been hit severely due to travel restrictions. Mark Meek, CEO of IWSR, says 2019 was the “last ‘normal’ year” for the industry for awhile. The firm expects it will take until at least until 2024 to reach pre-pandemic alcohol sales levels.
According to market research firm Nielsen, alcoholic beverage sales increased 55 percent in the week ending March 2, one of the first weeks of lockdown. Drizly, an alcohol delivery app, also reports sales increases of 485 percent through mid-April. However, inexpensive beer and wine account for most sales increases, according to data analysis firm inMarket. Over the past two months, Anheuser-Busch’s Busch Light sales saw a 44 percent increase. At craft distilleries, the opposite story has been playing out. Craft distilleries rely heavily on tasting rooms, restaurants, and in-person sales, and those companies have experienced widespread sales declines and layoffs, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the American Distilling Institute.
For example, before the pandemic, Virginia’s Catoctin Creek Distilling sold 60 percent of its product to liquor stores and 40 percent to restaurants and bars, according to co-owner Scott Harris. But in April, Catoctin Creek did not sell to a single restaurant or bar. In fact, restaurants returned 80 cases of whiskey to the company. Sales also vanished from tasting rooms, which normally account for 20 to 25 percent of the company’s revenue, according to Harris. While Catoctin had planned to sell 100,000 bottles of craft distilled liquor this year, Harris said he would be lucky to repeat last year’s sales of 60,000 bottles. Some industry experts predict that financial losses and shifting consumer buying habits will cause many craft distilleries to close permanently.
The bubbles in beer and soft drinks come from added carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of making ethanol. Ethanol is mixed into gasoline by federal mandate, but with drastically decreased air and ground travel due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the demand for gasoline has been low, forcing many ethanol plants to close. As a result, carbon dioxide production has fallen by about 30% compared to last year’s levels, according to the Compressed Gas Association. That has caused the price of carbon dioxide to go up.
A spokeswoman for the Coca-Cola Company reports that the decrease in carbon-dioxide production has been offset by decreased demand for soft drinks in restaurants and stadiums, most of which are still closed. “We do not foresee any concerns about supply at this time,” she said. However, brewing companies are already feeling the pinch. Since April, Vinnie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River Brewing, has been paying 25% more for the carbon dioxide that goes into his company’s beer. Bob Pease, president of the Brewers Association trade group, says that brewers may soon begin passing cost increases on to customers as restaurants and stadiums begin to reopen.
Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country smaller than Texas, has become the fourth largest market for Fanta soft drinks–but not just because it tastes good. Many Thais buy Fanta to please the spirits. According to Bangkok bartender Vipop Jinapha, red strawberry flavored Fanta can help you convince the gods to grant your prayers.
Shrines and spirit houses dot the streets and countryside of the small Asian country, providing shelter for the animist spirits, whose traditional homes such as trees and fields are often destroyed by construction. Worshippers who want the spirits to answer their prayers leave bottles of strawberry Fanta as an offering at the shrines, straws at the ready. The red color is key, says Bangkok resident and nonprofit staffer Christina Krause. Many residents of Bangkok have family roots in China, where red is a lucky color, she explains. The color is also close to that of a more traditional sweet offering, nam ya thai thip, a mix of palm sugar and herbs. Red, sweet, and convenient, strawberry Fanta just happens to hit all the marks for worshippers. Plus, as Jinapha says, “It just tastes good.”
Merlot, one of the world’s most popular red wines, may be at risk of extinction. Warmer temperatures have been ripening the grapes faster, leaving them with additional sugars, which eventually affects the wine’s alcohol content, acidity level, and even its color. Scientists say Merlot will be the first traditional grape variety at risk due to climate change.
Bordeaux, France, is widely considered to be the world’s wine capital, accounting for 16% of all wines made worldwide, and about 60% of Bordeaux vineyards consist of Merlot grapes. France is also the largest international wine consumer, and the wine industry now rakes in 7.6 billion euros in exports while employing over half a million people and attracting 24 million visitors to France’s wine regions annually. To help preserve France’s vibrant wine culture far into the future, laboratories in Bordeaux are now experimenting with replacements for Merlot, new wines that can survive in a changing climate.
Since the 1980s, Bordeaux’s harvest has been occurring earlier and earlier, giving French wines higher levels of alcohol. Some French regions, like Champagne and Alsace in Northern France, have benefitted from these warmer temperatures. Winemakers in these regions report that, since 2017, droughts have actually helped reduce the amount of mildew on vines. However, as average temperatures are expected to soon rise by 2° to 4°C, other French winemakers are scrambling to adapt. To help, the Science Institute of Vine and Wine (ISVV) is researching grape varieties to see how they handle different temperatures and diseases. Likewise, the Laccave project has gathered experts from various French institutes and universities to measure how climate change is affecting vineyards across and to offer winemakers guidance on adapting to changing conditions.
Ube (pronounced OOH-Bay) is a purple yam, now used as a cocktail ingredient. Ube’s unique flavor caught traction after its use among second-generation Filipino chefs in 2017. Ube gave ice cream a purple-tint, and in chicken and ube waffles at New York’s Maharlika. Around 2018 and 2019, bars started using ube typically with tropical-style ingredients. White spirits became fundamental for ube drinks, as they helped highlight ube’s violet hue.
Stephen Andrews, general Manager of Chicago-based gastropub Billy Sunday, uses ube powder and concentrate for his Tropic of Cancer cocktail. Like other bartenders, Andrew mixes ube into syrups rather than using it straight, as only a small amount is enough. Only two to three drops allows for a starchy texture and some vanilla aroma. Ube has more uses than just it’s eye-catching purple appeal.
As restaurants and sports stadiums remain closed due to the coronavirus, many food and drink businesses have pivoted to find new markets for their products. In Minneapolis, Bauhaus Brew Labs was forced to dump 900 gallons of its craft beer because it had reached its point of peak quality in storage. Beer distributors nationwide are sitting on stacks of unneeded kegs slowly approaching their expiration dates.
Some breweries are getting creative, providing crowlers (32-ounce cans) filled with draft beer. However, cans are in short supply and crowlers require expensive sealing machines. Crank Arm Brewing, in Raleigh, North Carolina has turned to plastic instead. Every week, Crank Arm sells 150 gallons of draft beer in plastic milk jugs.
Vermont beverage distributor Farrell Distributing is delivering kegs of beer to the Aqua ViTea Kombucha company. At Aqua ViTea, they decant and distill the beer, then donate it to Caledonia Spirits to make hand sanitizer. WhistlePig distillery in Shoreham, Vermont is making whiskey out of Farrell’s decanted beer. While these grassroots efforts help, most beer at craft breweries around the nation will not be saved.
The U.S. imports more tequila than any other country. Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal, a term encompassing any spirit that is distilled from the agave plant. Tequila is distilled from a particular species of the plant, Agave tequilana Weber var. azul or blue agave. But other spirits distilled from agave go by different names, including raicilla, bacanero, and sotol. These spirits taste more complex than most tequilas with a wide variety of flavor notes, including hints of cured ham, soft cheese, and cilantro.
Raicilla earned DO status (denominación de origen) in June 2019 and is made mostly in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, including in Puerto Vallarta. The agave there grows near the sea, often lending this spirit a minerally, briny taste along with hints of black pepper and citrus.
Bacanora was granted DO status in 2000 after being prohibited as moonshine for most of the 20th century. This spirit is made only from Agave Pacifica (A. angustifolia) in the dry Sonora desert region that borders Arizona and the Gulf of California. The dusty climate gives bacanora a drier, less smoky taste.
Sotol is made with the desert shrub Dasylirion, a different plant altogether. Various species of Dasylirion create different flavor nuances in sotol, but sotol usually has a gentle smoky finish from various woods such as acacia, mesquite and oak used to roast the shrub before distilling the liquid.
One species of grape vine, Vitis vinifera, accounts for 98 percent of the wine we drink today, including varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The remaining 2 percent comes from hybrid vines, and the wine world may be looking at a new normal working with more and more hybrids. The challenge with vinifera is their inability to naturally fight off diseases. For centuries, winemakers have routinely sprayed copper and sulfur on the vines to combat disease, and modern winemakers also use fungicides. However, concerns over the environmental impact of these viticulture practices have pushed wine experts to experiment with more and more hybrids.
Hybrids have historically been viewed as a lower quality alternative to vinifera. For instance, New York’s Finger Lakes region had been a hybrid-based wine industry until Ukrainian immigrant, Dr. Konstantin Frank, introduced vinifera to the region. Vinifera developed a reputation for producing more serious, dry wines, while hybrids became associated with cheap, sweet tasting wine, a perception that continues to this day.
But hybrids are showing promise not just in the field but also in the glass. The hybrids generating the most interest today are crossbred grape varieties with at least 85 percent vinifera in their genomes. These so-called PIWI or Pilzwiderstandsfähige (fungus-resistant) vines significantly reduce the environmental impact of treating vinifera. Jan Matthias Klein, a German winemaker who has been experimenting with PIWIs, says, “Quality-wise they’re on a par with traditional varieties.” Hybrid wines have been doing well in blind tastings in the area, and winegrowers have high hopes that hybrid wines may be on the brink of a resurgence.