My annual wine appraisal is due. Why? you ask; well, because I can. So if you can stay awake I will try briefly to make head or tail of the wine trends of the year as I see them and describe what is happening in general terms, plus some tips on what to buy; though as ever wine like any other beverage or food is subjective - very few people will come to the exact same conclusion of a wine's merits or otherwise.
In brief, the rise and rise of sparkling wine especially Prosecco and Cava has pushed Champagne down from its No. 1 position in this country. Rosé is still on the rise and in France more rosé is now consumed than white wine.
Spain is the largest exporter of wine, mainly due to the bulk wines from the prodigious plains of La Mancha. France still easily makes more money from wine exports than anyone else owing to their premium wine market, and the Italians make more wine than anyone else. And Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular grape variety, red or white, in the UK.
Anyone can see when trawling the supermarket shelves is that there is a push upwards in the price of wine on offer. In fairness, for years the price has been held down as the great British public refused to pay any more than £5 a bottle, but all good things come to an end and whilst the £5 bottle still exists the dearer bottles are now in the ascendant.
The pushing through that barrier has seen some outlets overdo the quality improvement bit and I have in mind Tesco who have carried out a badly needed revamp of their wine list but have introduced ever more own label wines under the Finest label. As with all the other supermarkets it can’t be and isn’t all the Finest or anything else but you pay more for it; sadly this is a trend that is going to grow as it constrains the amount of lines they stock to ones they have control over re price. Remember, important looking labels and expensive looking bottles have no bearing on what is within.
What we are seeing Europe wide is a general reshaping of the old wine producing countries as they push back against the New World and reshape, as they must, for the New World is not standing still either. The endless planting of the major grape varieties is slowing as indigenous grapes are being rediscovered and treated with respect. Europe of course has more of these than anywhere else and is experimenting with them, as well as using different grape varieties to suit the areas that are seeing temperature rises. An obvious candidate in red wines is the re emergence of Grenache, the southern Rhone staple that is more tolerant of high temperatures than Cabernet Sauvignon, and in Spain old Grenache vineyards are now being renovated, after suffering years of neglect and being ripped up.
Probably more than any other European country, Spain is going through or starting to institute some big changes. Among white wines, Albarino and Godello are proving Spain can produce quality white wines after years of oxidised white Riojas. The only problem with these excellent wines is the current fairly high price compared with the competition. There are also some other varieties on the rise - Verdejo, Macabeo, and others are being seen over here, welcome additions to the whites category; reds such as Monastrell, Carinena and Mencia are already available.
In reds Rioja, as I found on my recent trip, is changing: the old guard is being challenged. There is a push for single vineyard and area status, something everywhere else has but not Rioja. A Gran Reserva achieves its status by spending two years in wood and three in bottle, but it has been pretty obvious for years that the price of some Grand Reservas on sale could never be achieved without poor quality and cheap fruit being used, so the 2 and 3 year ruling has no guarantee of quality and this they are trying to change by trying to introduce a cru class system, i.e. wineries classified by quality.
Other areas of Spain are also on the rise with good and great reds coming from Ribera del Douro, Priorat, Toro and others; even La Mancha has plans to reduce the bulk wine industry and start on quality.
Spain's neighbor Portugal has been producing better and better wines for some time now and the Port grape Touriga Nacional is proving to be as good as any in producing top class reds and they are becoming ever more available. The whites as in Spain were pretty awful but the recent examples of Vinho Verde are miles away from that era and well worth buying.
Italy like Spain has been going through a change period over a longer time. Their indigenous white grapes are commonly seen now: Falanghina, Pecorino , Greco de Tuffi, Vermentinos and more alongside the Gavis, Verdicchios, Pinot Grigio ( the ones from the Trentino area are the best) and Soaves and at last the quality is rising with all of them - a couple of Soaves I have drunk this year reminded me of how good they can be.
In Italian reds there is not so much new, rather a cementing of fairly new (to us) grape varieties such as Aglianico, the southern reds providing the best value with Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) and much more choice of the likes of Montepulchiano d’Abruzzo and Chianti and the Tuscan region. The more expensive northern enclaves of Barolo and Barbaresco produce Italy's flagship wines but choosing is difficult: price can be stratospheric but not not necessarily the content.
In France the regions outside Bordeaux and Burgundy are getting the exposure they deserve with the Rhone valley producing some wines in their lesser appelations that have come on leaps and bounds along with availability. Everyone knows Chateauneuf du Pape and Cotes du Rhone, but the likes of St Joseph , Cornas, Lirac, Ventoux and especially Gigondas have not exactly been plentiful; but that is changing. The Rhone at one time was the most sought after of France’s wines and the top Hermitage, Cote Rotie wines can hold their own with anything from Bordeaux or Burgundy, but they will never really compete as the area where they are grown is minute compared with the latter. The Languedoc and satellite areas (if I can call them that) like Costieres de Nimes, Corbieres and the rise in the quality of the those using the Carignan Cinsault and Mouvedre grapes make this a happy hunting ground for new producers who are using the good material that in many cases has always been there.
The Loire is another very large area on the up, helped by temperature rises in recent years. This area that would have good years infrequently is enjoying better times: even the reds that can be thin and tasteless in bad years are offering something different to be tried. Red Chinon, for example, is being made to a standard way above the norm and Vouvray is very good most years, plus all the whites along this great river from the coast in starting with Muscadet have benefited from a renaissance in wine making and better weather.
I will lump the Alsace in with its German vineyards across the Rhine in saying they are still simply not appreciated for what they are and the great grape Riesling they use. For me it has always been the Pinot Gris that I have sought out from the Alsace, preferring the German interpretation of the Riesling grape, and this is another area that now seems rarely to have a bad vintage. The Riesling grape provides value for money in the hands of so many great producers - for many the Riesling is the greatest white grape. It continues to provide me with white wine on a par with and often better than white Burgundy and at a price I can afford. It was not always like that: as with the Rhone pre war, this area provided the most expensive and prestigious white wines. If you like Riesling there are now styles to suit all, and the drier styles are now superb: look out for anything with GG on the label and even the Kabinett class - they are in styles no longer in the sweet category and are amazing value.
The weather has benefited most northern wine areas and another to benefit is German red wines. Red German wines you ask? Well, yes: Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir) has been grown there with limited success for years but recently it has “come good” and there really are Spätburgunders to rival Burgundy and again becoming available.
Virtually no wine growing European country is not represented on the wine merchant's shelves now. Eastern Europe which has some very old vineyards has been slow out of the blocks but is starting to make a mark at this moment in time, mainly with their whites, and Greece is now full on producing some great wines from grape varieties unique to them - worth seeking out for something different and worthwhile.
As I said earlier the New World is not standing still either. Australia which started the revolution in new world wines has had to rethink not only what it grows but how they make the wine. Shiraz is still their best red but became very alcoholic and heavy to the extent that people started to turn to lighter, fresher styles and this is now being reflected in the vineyards, Chardonnay using cooler climate sites like the Adelaide Hills; the Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignons have moved up the quality ladder and Pinot Noir is being successfully farmed. New grape varieties are being planted in a country that has been quite conservative in that area.
NZ stays much the same, just starting to plant other varieties, but probably feels that their success with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (despite my own reservations on the cheaper versions) calls for any change to be carefully thought through.
In the vineyards of the Cape in South Africa there really has been change: no longer endless Chenin Blancs at knockdown prices. A move upmarket has resulted in some cracking wines of both colours coming from there. The problem for the SA wine industry is not whether they can produce great wine but the political situation, which is worsening for farmers of all types: how long before the wineries get similar treatment?
With Christmas approaching many will be reaching for the port and sherry. Both are artificially low in price against what is in the bottle. Bargains abound, bulk sherry producers are on the floor at the moment but the better sherries have never been more plentiful in recent times. There are some amazing sherries out there if you like the stuff: spend a bit more on a bottle, you will not regret it. The same with Port: it is amazing to be able to buy a vintage Port at today's prices; such great wine at such comparatively low prices.
Cool climate vines and "terroir" are the buzz words across the wine world at the moment and nowhere is pushing the boundaries more in this respect than Argentina. Having conquered the USA with their full-on Malbecs, experimentation at altitude has resulted in many high altitude vineyards being planted, the highest commercial vineyard being at 3,111 metres. The long season and plentiful sunshine in a cool climate situation brings a whole new dimension to the wines grown like this. Again as in Chile there is experimentation with different grape varieties. In Chile they are even planting in the Atacama desert, a cool climate desert; all of this opens up the use of other areas of the world to the planting of vines.
The Americas are fast opening up with Uruguay and even Peru producing wine and Brazil has an enormous sparkling wine industry, so it will not be long before we see Brazilian “Champagne” alongside the Prosecco and Cava.
The USA drinks most of its own wine and the cost of wines means they are not easy to source in the UK but exchange rates move in both directions and who knows when they will become easier to obtain.
Elsewhere in the world the big news is China who along with India will be almost certainly the new frontier of wine in the future. An awful lot of money is being pumped into finding the best sites for vines and the top consultants are being employed. To give an idea of the importance of this country and wine futures the DBR (Domaines Barons de Rothschild, the parent company of Chateau Lafite who have wine holdings worldwide) purchased 400 hectares in China in 2008 and the first wines will be on sale next year.
Bulk wines from the likes of the two powerhouses of this wine, Spain and Italy, plus France, Chile and Australia, account for an ever growing percentage of supermarket wines. Bulk wine by definition is any wine shipped in containers (and not in bottles or smaller packaging and bottled in the country of consumption.) Most people would never realise that the bottle they hold is from bulk shipped wine, only a small label “bottled in the UK” gives it away. The cost savings on freight and packaging, bottles, is enormous and keeps the wine price down so it is not all bad. Bulk wines currently account for something like 62% of all wines sold in the UK with 85% of all Australian wines being shipped in bulk.
In other news, cork is rising back to the top as a closure, as the cork producers fight back against the screwtop with cork closures that have managed to eliminate the spoilage compounds, above all trichloroanisole TCA. People prefer the cork as it gives a perceived indication of quality, so cork will retain the lion's share of the closure market; hat in itself is enormous -18 billion bottles of wine are produced annually and over 11 billion use cork as a closure, as against 4.5 billion using screw caps and the rest plastics. A whole science is continually going into making closures of all types better for the wine they enclose.
And finally it has become very apparent in recent years that there has been an ever increasing number of women involved in wine; from wine makers at all levels and world wide to CEOs and managers, women are now an important part of the wine industry, such as Susana Balbo in Argentina; Xandra Falco who runs the Marques de Grinon estate in Spain; also in Spain Elena Adell, chief winemaker at the giant Campo Viejo winery; again in Spain Maria Vargas chief winemaker of Marques de Murrietta; and many others in all the wine producing countries.