Why did this year in wine feel so off-kilter? I was wondering that the other day as I took quiet satisfaction in browsing photos of U.S. marshals crushing Rudy Kurniawan’s fake bottles into shards of glass, an epilogue to the era of overkill that brought us the wine world’s biggest fraud. I had that same disorientation, and not in a bad way, when I heard that a major Champagne house, Taittinger, was founding its own sparkling wine property on English soil.
For sure, their move was affirmation of the surging quality in English sparkling wine, something that’s been happening for years. But it was also upending an 800-year tradition. For centuries the British had crossed the water to opportunistically slake their thirst; now France is reversing the trend. In part, at least, because young growers and small firms in Champagne have captured most of the attention at home. The old guard is now scrambling to find somewhere else to play.
And speaking of those 800 years of pilfering France’s bounty: Bordeaux this year seemed at ends about how to deal with much of the modern world no longer caring about it. The region, which loves prestige and scores like no other, still doesn’t quite seem to have comprehended that Robert Parker, after nearly four decades, wasn’t going to rate its new vintage, having handed off that duty to Neal Martin. (Martin is a terrific critic, and the changing of guard should have been welcome. But Bordeaux doesn’t do change well.)
There was the rosé craze, again. Many of us had spent years pleading its case, only to find in 2015 that those dreams came just a bit too true. From White Girl Rosé (please, no) to brosé (really, no), its popularity didn’t just peak—it crested and began spiraling out of control. Inevitably, a pink-wine backlash ensued, which wasn’t really fair, because rosé never asked to become a worn-out meme.
And, as if we needed one more confirmation that the wine world’s axis was tilting, Georges Duboeuf, the Beaujolais firm, parted ways with Deutsch Family—the U.S. importer that, together with Duboeuf, created the American thirst for Beaujolais Nouveau—in favor of an importer who plans to focus on Duboeuf’s higher-end cru Beaujolais and other wines. Yeah, Beaujolais is a serious wine now; and yes, we’ve talked about it plenty. But here is the final kicker: Even the king of Nouveau got the memo.
All of these are symbolic milestones on their own. But together, they add up to larger shift that’s been building over the past half-decade: 2015 was the year when wine—good wine—stopped being so damned elitist. It’s no longer a game to be played by dudes in ties or a principality governed by arcane and archaic rules. The old tropes, most of which had been worn out for a while, are now set to be fully retired—as are all those complaints about would-be wine snobs. (Who, pray tell, might these “snobs” be? Anyone who spots the flaws in a load of populist claptrap?)
Even if we’re still sorting out the new rituals and language—please, let us never again say we are “crushing” a bottle of “juice”—wine can now be loved in ways that are both serious and casual. So perhaps 2015 was the last hurrah for the old guard, of a generation consumed by ambition—one that viewed both winemaking and wine buying as a score-driven charge to some arbitrary finish line.
Now to the fun part: What happens next? Here are five of the stories that will make a difference in 2016.
Muscadet Grows Up
For years, a small band of wine people have been suggesting that Muscadet, the eminently mineral wine of the western Loire, had more to offer than sheer drinkability and friendliness to seafood. We’ve put forward bottles like Luneau-Papin’s Excelsior and Domaine de la Pépière’s Clisson as evidence that these wines can evolve and age just like many white Burgundies, despite the fact that it’s made from the humble melon grape—which isn’t so lowly after all.
But what’s happening today in Muscadet is essentially the white-wine equivalent of what has happened in Beaujolais. A raft of serious-minded producers are discussing not only the terroir of the nine crus communaux (much like a village designation in Burgundy), but specific vineyards and parcels, too—their nuances perceptible thanks to the region’s generally transparent winemaking. (The naturalists are at work, too, making unsulfured and skin-fermented Muscadet.) Since even Chablis has become a bit expensive for daily life, Muscadet is our new white-wine salvation.
Drink these: The wines from Vincent Caillé have all the right cred for this new era: organic farming in several of the crus, and minimal work in the cellar. (There’s even an amphora.) Look for his Domaine le Fay d’Homme Monnières-Saint Fiacre ($25), from a cru known for its mix of acidic gneiss and sandy loam; at five years old, the 2010 is flinty and still very young, with a hint of oiliness from four years on its lees. Similarly, the Les Bêtes Curieuses project from Jérémie Huchet and Jérémie Mourat seeks old parcels to show the terroir. Their 2014 La Perdrix de L’Année ($16) finds the right balance of richness and a coppery minerality from a sand-and-granite parcel in Clisson.
Oregon Embraces Its Loire Fetish
As Oregon’s pinot noir industry celebrated its 50th birthday this year, it finally hit a sort of tipping point with the arrival of big players like Burgundy’s Louis Jadot and, perhaps less auspiciously, California’s Caymus (with its big Elouan project). The state’s small-is-good mentality has, thus, come up against the boom that places like Sonoma faced 20 years ago. That left some of the state’s true believers wondering what would come next. Riesling? Yes, in a small way. Chardonnay? Perhaps, but expanding the chardonnay universe is a bit of a fool’s errand.
Instead, some folks on the fringe have advanced a different theory: What if Oregon’s legacy lies not in the echo of Burgundy, but in channeling the Loire? Portland-based wineries like Bow & Arrow, Leah Jørgensen Cellars and Division Winemaking Company have all been pursuing that notion for several years now. But with the indie status of Oregon pinot beginning to tarnish, 2016 may be the year where their notion catches on. In their telling, it’s cabernet franc, gamay noir and chenin blanc that could be the Northwest’s great hope. True, some of them also work with pinot, although their inspiration is still more Loire—where the grape also grows. (Other alt-Oregon proponents will likely rise in this, too, including Brianne Day, who has caught attention for her malvasia and côt-tannat blend; and Teutonic Wine Co., inspired by a region of Europe you can probably guess.)
Drink these: I’ve been admiring Leah Jørgensen’s wines for a few years, especially her Applegate Valley Blanc de Cabernet Franc ($26), which highlights that grape’s peppercorn character, but in the form of a vibrant mostly-white wine. Bow & Arrow’s Air Guitar ($27), a mix of cabernets franc and sauvignon, makes a strong case for both varieties on Oregon soil.
Pétillant naturel is sparkling wine in which the fizz comes from finishing the primary fermentation in a bottle, where gas is trapped. After having its moment for the past couple of years, there’s a growing drumbeat that it is set to fade.
Not so, my trend-spiking amigos. If anything, pét-nat is expanding. Every time I turn around there’s another winemaker trying their hand—from California and Oregon to Long Island and the Finger Lakes to nearly every corner of France. (The Loire area of Montlouis even now has its own appellation for so-called pétillant originel, made without added sugar.) In many cases, pét-nat is their opportunity to make something a bit more freeform in nature, closer to craft beer than wine. And good for them: These are pleasing and uncomplicated wines, and yet they have a seriousness—even with the crown caps—that goes completely the opposite direction from the cheap cava and prosecco that once stood for bubbles you could drink when not drinking Champagne. A handful of traditional prosecco makers are even expanding their work with col fondo, a cousin of pét-nat that retains its lees in the bottle.
Drink these: La Grange Tiphaine’s work in the central Loire shows the best aspects of chenin blanc, including their Nouveau Nez Montlouis-sur-Loire Pétillant Originel ($27), as does the Les Capriades Pet’Sec ($26), both of which show the fresh and mineral side of the grape more than its apple-like aspects. In California, look for new versions from Onward, Los Pilares, Scar of the Sea, Cruse Wine Co. and more. From New York, Bellwether (Finger Lakes), Southold Farm + Cellar and Channing Daughters (Long Island) are names to watch, as are Casa Belfi, Costadilá and Casa Coste Piane on the col fondo front.
A Spotlight for The Region That’s Not the Jura
The Savoie is often lumped together with the Jura, even though they share neither proximity nor geology. (It’s a two-hour drive, or about the distance from Meursault to Côte Rotie.)
The Savoie finally seems ready for its well-deserved shot at Jura-like exposure. Some credit can go to Dominique Belluard, whose sparkling and still wines have found a willing audience among serious wine buyers—including a lot of Burg-philes—and to naturalist producers like Jean-Yves Péron. A bit also goes to the oddball parade of grapes, including jacquère and mondeuse, which are propelling that newfound interest. And whatever is left to the fact that the alpine Savoie and nearby Bugey—annotating the western edge of Switzerland as they do—seem like two rare places still untrammeled by a wine world that’s kicking over every stone.
Drink these: Belluard’s Les Perles du Mont Blanc Brut ($24), made from the rare gringet grape, has the persistence of Champagne, while Peron’s Champ Levat Rouge ($34) and Roche Blanche Jacquère ($30) are great examples of type, even if he doesn’t label them with Savoie appellations. For that matter, even a straightforward example like the Jean Perrier Abymes Cuvée Gastronomie ($14) shows off the beauty of a grape like jacquère.
California Finds Its Affordable Side
There are plenty of regions trying to rewrite their elevator pitch, whether it’s the New Australia (super exciting, still rather expensive) or Canada or elsewhere. But California’s reformation is still paying dividends, including a bit of progress on one of my major worries about it: that the interesting new wines are too expensive.
Price remains a big concern for California, but the universe of compelling, small-production wines in the $20 to $30 range keeps growing, thanks in part to things like pét-nat, but also the realization that the only way many drinkers will come back to California is if there are wines that share not only their values (usually, a repudiation of Big Wine) but their budget. There’s plenty of work left to do, but we’ll take progress where we can.
Drink these: The La Clarine Farm Jambalaia Rouge ($26) from the Sierra Foothills jumbles up red (mourvèdre, grenache), and white (marsanne, fiano, arneis) grapes for a chuggable specimen that’s neither quite red or white, while wine like the Brea Chardonnay ($14) from the Central Coast offers a more virtuous choice for an everyday table wine. And look for bottles from Birichino, Rootdown, Tendu, Jolie-Laide, Leo Steen, P’tit Paysan, Broc Cellars, Ryme Cellars and many more.
Other Stories to Watch
The New Australia, as mentioned above, will finally catch the attention it’s been seeking. Greece, after years of being patted on the head, will rise from its economic muddle to become a serious contender to Spain and Italy—especially with its underappreciated red wines. And finally, as the coverage of sommeliers continues to mature, we’ll see more serious coverage of wine lists, which generate a lot of restaurants’ revenue, and remain a disproportionately small part of the conversation.