As it is every January, replacing last year's calendar anew is a time of both reflection and contemplation of what lies ahead. This year, articulating vision and arriving at conclusions have been more elusive than ever. Perhaps it's mid-life, or maybe it's the volatility of the world around us - micro and macro.
Relating to wine writing, I'm overdue on a number of items: Best Wines of the Year, Year in Review, Predictions For 2016, and, of course, the (now too late to even bother with) Gift Giving Ideas. Some of these will come easily, but those requiring a sense of calm in perspective, well, those will demand some laboring. You see, there's been a bit of a cloud hanging over my wine musings for some months now - and it's like quicksand. The more I wrestle, the more I wrestle. And while I hesitate to greet the new year with anything other than optimism, there are some actionable takeaways for the thoughtful wine consumer. Here it is:
Wine isn't getting any better. It's getting worse.
Can I be more specific? Sure. Domestically produced wines (both red and white), but particularly red in the $12-25 price range, have continued a stylistic about-face (or death spiral) that began with the 2013 vintage and continue to reveal up the price line as more expensive wines are released. This not-so-subtle shift can be broadly characterized by overextraction, high alcohol and residual sugar, simplicity, viscosity, overmanipulation, strong caramel and vanilla influences, muted and clumsy acidity, gloppy fruit, and an overall dumbing down of character and complexity. While prices have continued to rise, quality - at least as measured by the aforementioned characteristics - has dropped like a fart in church.
Winemakers will tell you that they are simply channeling what Mother Nature is delivering. By that they mean that the planet is warming, which makes for grapes that have very high sugars before they reach full phenolic ripeness. That makes sense and there's ample proof of it. But the majority of wines available to the average consumer appears to be designed by focus groups more than winemakers, so the average winemaker is shouting into the storm. In contrast, trend trackers will tell you the reason for this change in flavor profiles is merely an industry catering to consumers' evolving tastes. In other words, our collective craving is tilting strongly towards candy syrup. By my casual observations, both of these are likely contributing factors, not that understanding the pathology of it makes it any easier to digest. Bottom line is that, thanks to the diverging trajectories of quality and cost, buying wine made in the USA is riskier than it has been since the modernization of the domestic industry.
But there's good news amid this bleakness.
|Euro v Dollar 2006-16|
Outside the US, wine styles seem to be maintaining long-held traditions, despite the fact that global warming does not discriminate. Though there are some exceptions - new wines made in the "international style" - wines that have been produced for decades continue to hold true to their heritage. More specifically, Italy and France keep cranking out food-friendly wines of substantial character and value - as they have for centuries. And the impact of the strong dollar is a sweet bonus. Thanks to long-term import financing, currency fluctuations take a long time to work their way through the system, but the euro's current decline began in April of 2014. At a minimum, this means that US consumers are at least somewhat protected from price increases on European wines - as compared to 20%+ increases on domestic products. Chianti, anyone?
So, if you're smart and you like good quality wines at a reasonable price, I expect to find you in the Old World aisles in 2016. Cheers and happy drinking.