- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With 2008 under way, it makes sense to look ahead, not behind. So let’s forget those “best of ‘07” lists and focus on the future.

Although I tend to do better with crystal glasses than crystal balls, I’m going to try to foresee what the new year may bring us in the increasingly wide world of wine. Here, then, are 10 trends to watch in ‘08. Come Dec. 31, we’ll find out if I’ve been discerning or dumb.

RISING PRICES

No matter what happens to the dollar during the next 12 months, prices for imported wines are bound to rise. That’s because many contracts between importers and producers were signed in 2007 or even 2006, years in which the dollar plunged against the euro and other foreign currencies.

You might think this would translate to bargain prices for domestic wines. However, the American wine industry has always been remarkably shortsighted, and I’ve noticed many domestic producers increasing prices as well. Sadly, the only consistent sources for bargains are countries with significant levels of poverty, where labor comes cheap — notably Argentina, Chile and South Africa — and countries with a significant glut of (cheap) wine to sell — notably Australia. Everywhere else, and even in these countries, if you want premium wines, expect to pay more.

GLOBAL LUXURY

Over the past 2 decades, fine wine has become a global commodity, with the result that certain renowned wines have turned into luxury products. Demand for them far outstrips supply.

First-growth Bordeaux, certain cult California cabernets, the most prestigious Barolos and Barbarescos are all priced in the stratosphere. Most wine enthusiasts simply cannot afford them. Because the housing crisis and resulting economic downturn seem not to have affected those Americans who can afford these wines and because demand for them is growing in places where people traditionally did not much care about wine in general (especially China and India), you can expect the price gap between luxury wines and other premium wines to increase.

CORK CRISIS

Estimates differ, but between 2 percent and 10 percent of cork-finished wine is tainted by bad cork.

Can you imagine another consumer product with that sort of failure rate? Five percent of Levi jeans with faulty zippers? Or Buicks with bad brakes? No wonder more and more vintners are using different closures. Expect to see more of these, especially screw caps and, for fancy wines, glass stoppers. Should you own stock in a Portuguese cork company, sell it right away.

LIGHT MAKES RIGHT

Light-bodied, usually unoaked wines are enjoying an American comeback. Pinot grigio has become the best-selling white import; Riesling is experiencing a renaissance; and dry rose sales are on the rise. This trend will grow stronger in 2008. I don’t expect demand for fuller, riper wines to slacken. Instead, more people will be enjoying more wines, in more styles.

PINOT PLUNGES?

I keep insisting that consumer infatuation with American pinot noir simply has to cool off. Most of these wines taste sickly sweet, lack structure and offer little pleasure. They also are horribly overpriced.

I’m predicting that 2007’s pinot frenzy will calm down in 2008. I have to admit, though, that this may be little more than wishful thinking, as current sales figures provide scant evidence of anything but pinot passion — to my mind unmerited.

WHITE RHONE GRAPES

The past few years have seen an explosion of interest in red wines made from Rhone grapes — especially syrah, but also grenache and mourvedre. Now it’s their white cousins’ turn. Whether coming from France, Australia, California or elsewhere, look for more white Rhone varietal wines on store shelves and restaurant lists. Viognier is the best-known of these grapes, but roussanne, marsanne, and grenache blanc will be showing up as well.

SLEEK GREEKS

Mediterranean cuisines remain very popular, both in restaurants and on home supper tables. Whether from France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Turkey or the Middle East, we Americans love fresh, healthy Mediterranean food. Not surprisingly, we love the wines, too.

Over the past decade or so, first southern French wines, then Tuscan wines and finally Spanish wines enticed our palates. Now look for Greek wines to do the same.

Some people still think Greece only produces retsina. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contemporary Greek wine, much of it made with indigenous grape varieties, tastes vibrant and delicious.

Look for refreshing whites made with assyrtiko, malagousia, and roditis and satisfying reds made with aghiorghitiko (also called St. George) and xinomavro. Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce these names. Remember the first time you tried to say “cabernet sauvignon?”

DRINKING LOCAL

Unless — or until — production becomes much larger, local wines will remain, well, local. A quality Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland or Pennsylvania producer simply cannot compete in volume with a large Californian. Increasingly, though, local vintners are competing in quality.

As local wines get better and better, more people are buying them. I fully expect that trend to continue in 2008. Going along with it, more people are traveling to local wineries and trying wines where they are made. Plan a weekend getaway to wine country — local wine country, that is.

HEAT OVER ALCOHOL

To date, most of the fuss over wines with high alcohol levels has come from people in the wine trade — vintners, critics and writers, sommeliers and merchants.

Just in the past few months, though, I’ve noticed consumers beginning to ask about it, and some are asking specifically for wines with low (or at least lower) alcohol percentages.

As part of the growing interest in light-bodied wines noted above, I expect this trend to continue. Indeed, I suspect that before long we will have 2 quite different groups of wine-drinking consumers.

One group, probably the larger one, won’t care about this issue, but the second definitely will. As the size of that second group grows, it will put pressure on producers to reduce alcohols.

COCKTAIL WINES

This prediction may take longer than a year to come true, but I’m guessing that before too long, we will see wines being made, marketed and sold specifically for use as cocktail beverages rather than as mealtime companions. These wines invariably will sport higher alcohol levels and taste headier than dinner wines.

The practice of drinking wine in lieu of a cocktail is a particularly American phenomenon. It shows no sign of abating. Producers already cater to it, though they do not say so explicitly. I’m betting they will start doing so fairly soon.

After all, the bold flavors that satisfy at a bar are very different from the more refined flavors that entice one’s palate during dinner.

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