- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Wine’s greatest pleasure comes not from a single, momentary sensation, but from changing tastes over time. Unlike many things that human beings consume, it is always alive. The same is true of its world — not the liquid itself, but the human and natural environments in which wine is produced and enjoyed.

This past year has seen a host of important developments in that world, many of which promise to directly affect what American wine lovers will be drinking in the years to come. That’s because just as the taste of any wine changes over time, so consumer choices and predilections shift as well.

Because some of the transformations that occurred in 2005 seem especially significant, they are worth remembering in this first week of 2006. Recognizing what happened yesterday may help you understand what may occur tomorrow — what new choices might become available and new preferences cultivated.

Here then is a brief, backward glance at what to me were the top wine stories of the past year.

INCREASED POPULARITY

Not too long ago, wine in America seemed either sleazy or esoteric. A bottle of wine belonged in a brown paper bag on skid row or in a crystal carafe in a fancy French restaurant; it wasn’t something likely to be found in an average American home.

All that has changed; wine has become an ever larger part of mainstream American culture. Just how large became apparent in July, when a Gallup poll revealed that wine, not beer, is America’s favorite alcoholic beverage.

Wine’s increased popularity does not mean that consumers are all that knowledgeable about it or even comfortable with it. Other recent surveys indicate that many wine drinkers remain unsure of how to read a label, navigate a restaurant list or choose what to buy in a wine shop..

Despite everything that continues to intimidate people, more and more middle-class Americans say they like wine — and they want to drink it. This means that wine in the United States no longer is divided against itself.

DIRECT SHIPPING

Tremors were felt throughout the wine industry when the Supreme Court ruled in June that a state could not forbid the shipment of wine from an out-of-state vintner while allowing in-state shipping.

Consumers have not yet been affected significantly by this decision, and most of us never will be. No matter what the court rules in subsequent cases, the majority of wine in America will continue to be sold as it has been since the repeal of Prohibition — through licensed wholesalers and retailers..

Although future consumers may not have to purchase every bottle of wine through the wholesale-retail system, they will be empowered — as will the producers who may sell and ship wine directly. The problem with the post-Prohibition system always was that it turned both winemakers and wine drinkers into the captives of wine middlemen. Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, that is beginning to change.

AMERICAN PINOT NOIR

The movie “Sideways” was cute, but it didn’t start the domestic pinot noir craze. Instead, the wines themselves did, as 2005 was the year in which this difficult and oft-maligned varietal finally came of age.

A thin-skinned and notoriously fickle grape, pinot noir yielded very few successful American wines until recently. Now, thanks to improved viticulture and winemaking, more and more American pinots taste delicious.

The best examples — from California and Oregon — tend to come in an exuberant, fruit-forward style and are vastly superior to most of the wines that were being made from this grape even five years ago..

Good pinot noir from elsewhere, particularly this variety’s historic home of Burgundy, often costs a small fortune. Top American pinots can be expensive too, but they don’t have to be. For less than $20 a bottle, you can enjoy wines like A to Z 2003 from Oregon, Chateau St. Jean 2003 from Sonoma County and Saintsbury “Garnet” 2004 from Carneros in California.

FRENCH WOES AND WINS

French wine, long the global standard-bearer, continues to be in economic crisis. One example: Faced with increased international competition, slumping sales and a glut of grapes, wineries in Bordeaux in the summer were forced to sell the equivalent of 26 million bottles of excess production to companies that then used it to make commercial cleaning solutions and ethanol fuel..

Vintners throughout France are coming to realize that they need to market, promote and sell their wines in new and different ways, working cooperatively across regions, as Australian wine companies have done brilliantly over the past decade..

What French vintners do not need to do, however, is change the style of their wines. Whether from Bordeaux or Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne or the Rhone Valley, those wines continue to set qualitative benchmarks, and not only when selling for exorbitant prices.

Though few American consumers realize it, many of the best wine values in the world come from France.

Look, for example, for 2003 and 2004 red wines from the Cotes-du-Rhone and various Languedoc regions, most of which sell for less than $15 a bottle.

UNOAKED CHARDONNAY

White-wine drinkers remain in love with chardonnay, but an increasing number of them are opting for leaner, crisper renditions, wines that taste of the grapes from which they’re made, not the barrels in which they have been aged.

Many winemakers, both in America and abroad, have cut back on their use of oak. Others have gone further and abandoned their barrels altogether. To do so, though, they need to be sure they have high-quality grapes. That’s because while oak can add enticing flavors to chardonnay, it also can mask unpleasant ones. A chardonnay labeled as “unoaked” or “unwooded” thus needs to express clean, pure fruit flavor..

Many unoaked chardonnays come at attractive prices. Three that especially impressed me this year were: Domaine de Bernier 2004 from the Loire Valley in France for about $10; Kim Crawford 2004 from Marlborough in New Zealand for about $18, and Chehalem “Inox” from Oregon’s Willamette Valley for about $20.

RIESLING REVIVAL

Connoisseurs long have celebrated Riesling as one of the world’s greatest white-wine grapes, but consumers have tended to pay little attention. That seems to be changing, in large measure because many restaurateurs have started to highlight it on their wine lists and menus.

When made in a dry style, Riesling can be remarkably food-friendly. It goes especially well with spicy, Asian-inspired fare, the so-called fusion foods that have proved very popular recently.

Germany, Austria and France’s Alsace region are Riesling’s historic European homes, but the New World has come on strong in recent years. In particular, South Australian Riesling — crisp, dry and marked by a characteristic note of lime — can be a revelation. At the top end, try Grosset “Polish Hill” 2004 for about $30; for less money, look for Jacob’s Creek Reserve 2004 for about $12.

Because it invariably tastes crisp and lively, dry Riesling is an ideal warm-weather choice. My guess is that its revival will only accelerate come spring.

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