The wine world is departing 2018 much like the world in general—confused and stressed and not sure what happens next.
On one hand it seemed like the rich, fancy wines of the oligarchy were winning this year, with a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti becoming the most expensive wine ever sold, for $558,000 at an October auction. On the other, it seemed like the great wave of wine populism—led largely, if not entirely, by wine’s naturalist contingent—was finally approaching critical mass. Revolution was nigh.
More than anything, 2018 brought a collision between these two factions. Wine’s once unique status as cultural totem is largely depleted; today it competes with mezcal and sake and shochu and aged amari and all manner of things that have acquired a similar cultural weight. It has to justify itself. (It will. It’s just complicated.)
For that reason, when I looked into my crystal ball, I found it harder than ever to discern what’s coming. Is 2019 when the dam busts, and we locate the path that illuminates wine’s future for the next 20 years? Maybe. Or maybe, as they say in baseball, it’s another rebuilding year.
In any case, I’ll lay my odds:
Bordeaux Bounces Back
The prediction of all French predictions continues. I posited this in 2017 and really, it’s gonna happen. No, really. Bordeaux is still the largest fine-wine region of France, and one of the world’s most influential. There are more than 8,000 producers, most of whom have gotten zero benefit from the fancification and infighting of top properties.
A raft of small, hardworking properties—places like Clos du Jaugueyron, Château Planquette, Château du Champ des Treilles, Domaine de Galouchey, Château Bourgneuf and so on—are at last finding traction among a younger contingent of American wine fans. Artisan Bordeaux, often organically grown, is showing up, slowly, in the spots where the cool kids drink. It’s a long road, but for once there’s light up ahead.
Natural Wine Goes Official
A frequent knock against natural wine is that it has no real definition—or at least one person’s definition doesn’t equal another. For a while, there has been discussion about having a label or logo that designates natural wines. But the closest so far has been the French groups AVN, which got as far as writing a set of guidelines, and SAINS, which insists its members use no added sulfur whatsoever.
In 2019, the pieces will move ahead on the board—and it won’t go so well. Why? For one, because there’s almost no agreement about definitions. And two, because the counterculture of natural wine gains almost nothing by it happening. Will befuddled consumers really suddenly gain clarity? Or will it just lead to more infighting? The question of “what’s natural” is going to be with us for a while. But one thing is sure: Putting little logos on bottles won’t resolve anything.
Pét-Nat Crosses Over
The style of wine known as pétillant naturel is due for its star shot, one that lasts beyond a handful of gushy articles. Sure, it’s always hampered by limited production. But that didn’t stop grower Champagne, or natural wine or cru Beaujolais from finding a broader market. And, in a way, pét-nat is the easiest of those to get your head around: It’s fizzy wine with less pretense than Champagne but more pedigree than, say, prosecco, and it’s not expensive. Expect it to start showing up in a lot more mainstream places in 2019, and all for the better. Because the usual old argument—that it’s too weird—just doesn’t wash. If sour beers and New England IPAs can find widespread support, pét-nat is a cinch.
Sommeliers Debate The Path Ahead
It was an odd year in SommWorld. The question wasn’t whether people want to be in the industry—of course they do—so much as what that industry should look like. Among other things, the tension was brought to the surface by an article late in the year, in which a couple of big-name sommeliers defended the traditional ways: blind tastings, mastering classic wines and so on. The shade that was thrown—on natural wine, on the perceived sins and egos of young sommeliers—rankled a good number of younger professionals.
But that paled in comparison to the real barnburner: In September, the Court of Master Sommeliers invalidated one of their largest-ever classes of new master sommeliers after an apparent breach in their ranks about the wines that were poured for the difficult tasting exam. Eventually they offered a do-over: 30 candidates took the test again in December. Six who’d already passed did so again. A bunch who’d previously succeeded got a lump of coal.
The situation might have been de-escalated if not for the Court’s tight-lipped stance: After months, it still hasn’t named its now-defrocked offender or shed much light at all. Suddenly, the nation’s top sommelier group was shying from the very media spotlight it spent years courting. Its response, plus the gap between its formalist ways and the increasingly freeform approach more restaurants are taking with their wine programs, fueled the question that many young professionals are asking: What should wine service even be anymore? Is the old way of following all the rules, spending lots of money to blind-taste classics like Burgundy, really the best way to build my career? What does that pin on one’s lapel really do? A few years ago, this skepticism lay on the fringe. After this year, the Magic 8 Ball has grown much more cloudy.
Hybrids Finally Get Respect
Hybrid wine grapes—bred varieties that cross vinifera (European grapevines) with other grape species—have long been a pragmatic solution to making wine in difficult conditions. They’re also second-class citizens in the wine world, often lacking the quality of more fancy vinifera. But that’s rapidly changing, starting in a way with La Garagista and winemaker Deirdre Heekin. Heekin was doing all the things a talented, natural-minded winemaker should, except she was doing it in Vermont, using hybrid grapes like la crescent and frontenac gris. Same across the border with Quebecois properties like Pinard et Filles (also la crescent) and Domaine du Nival (vidal), as well as other Vermonters, like Iapetus and Zafa, plus Wild Arc Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley and Missouri’s Vox Vineyards (skin-contact vignoles).
In a low-key way, this is the biggest thing in years to happen for local wine communities outside of the well-known U.S. wine regions, merging the pragmatism of cold-weather grapes with the birth of a new cool. We’ll see even more good examples appear this coming year.
Requiem for The Tasting Note
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon, the hoary old form of the wine tasting note is due for its burial. While it has a far longer history, the tasting note only came into full being when wine magazines and newsletters found its commercial value in the 1970s. But what’s clear is that it’s not doing a lot of good today. The thing the industry has long pleaded for—to tell The Story, and not just sit around criticizing bottles—has finally arrived. Oh, sure, there’ll be a few quants still around who believe aesthetic beauty can be compressed into a handful of digits, and they’ll keep crunching those numbers. But context has won. So if the context-less tasting note isn’t going to fully die off, it’ll keep fading into grey.
Other Bits and Pieces
The frenzy fades around glou glou. Glou glou, which more or less translates into “glug glug,” was meant to represent a style of lighter, happy, sessionable wine—often made by the carbonic process, almost certainly with bankable hipster cred. Glou glou is lovely, but it’s reaching the end of its arc as a dominant form, done in by the entropy that attends most fads. Tannins will be very on-trend in 2019.
The New Portugal finds its audience. For years the seeds of change have been in Portuguese wine, but it has been hard to get people to pay attention. (Like, one Old World country too many?) The change is undeniable; not just in the Douro Valley but throughout the country, wines are being made with the nuance and crystalline flavors that have also defined revolutionary change in California, France, Spain, Australia and beyond. In 2019, people will finally notice.
“Orange” and its synonyms earn a place on wine lists. This has been happening for a while, and it’s rightfully earned. These wines are as distinctive as rosé or red. Now perhaps we’ll stop making such a big deal of it.
The California selloff reaches critical mass. It’s been happening for a few years—the selling of well-known wineries, primarily to bigger wine companies and deep-pocketed investors. (This year alone included Kosta Browne, Heitz and Stony Hill.) And it’s about to reach a tipping point. It has to: Even with a child to take over, it would be hard as a vineyard owner in California not to consider selling, seeing as, in Napa, for instance, land frequently tops $300,000 per acre. But in many cases there’s no obvious succession plan. A new and younger contingent—probably with deep pockets but hopefully not all that way—is waiting to take over.