From the potential decline of the celebrity sommelier to California’s next chapter, Jon Bonné lays out the wine stories that will make a difference in 2018.
BY JON BONNÉ
When we engaged in this bit of crystal ballgazing a year ago it was already clear wine wasn’t going to offer an escape from the ambient stress of the Trump era; if anything, wine was becoming more political and more contentious.
That isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of things to appreciate about wine in 2017, perhaps nothing more than its rapidly accelerating pace of change, which I highlighted in 2017’s column. Wine is evolving—spurred by lots of things, but especially the freestyle ways of the natural-wine world and the codification of the rebel winemaker as cultural icon. But rapid change isn’t always positive; in some corners, I’ve witnessed a rush to throw out tradition in any form, in order for a new generation of wine drinkers (and winemakers) to claim the discourse. If tradition can hold wine back, it’s equally important not to be bamboozled by new for new’s sake.
There were things in 2017 no one would have predicted, including the devastation to California wine country by wildfires this fall, a teachable moment for all. And if Brexit cast a pall over Europe, there was also cause for hope that came, of all places, from France. Not only did Emmanuel Macron’s election place a wine lover at the head of the world’s most influential wine-producing country, it telegraphed that the French were breaking a cycle of self-defeat, enough that the Economist—no fan of Gallic socialism—named France its Country of the Year. French vignerons, who a year ago were terrified about Marine Le Pen, have suddenly found reason to be upbeat.
Taken all together, the best I can say for 2018 is that now is a moment to be both a wine optimist and a skeptic. And with that, some predictions:
France! France!! France!!!
I could tap the surging interest in the Anjou and its wines, or Saumur or nearly anywhere in the Loire. I could talk about the sea changes in the Roussillon and the signs of hope in Bordeaux and the southern Rhône (and we will, in coming months). I could easily point to the pivot of Champagne from bling to real wine, and what has become a drumbeat of calls to drink it all the time. Or the new life in Burgundy and Beaujolais, or how, despite some existential issues, Provence rosé—French rosé generally—has become the new must-drink of our time.
As we noted in our recent “Hot 25,” French wine has regained the cachet it enjoyed during a midcentury heyday—except now we’re less taken with Sancerre (although importing Sancerre remains a shockingly smart bet) and Pouilly-Fuissé than with a rewritten hierarchy of taste. That’s all for the good, because even if your clairette and Muscadet are aged in amphorae, and even if the carbonic maceration of Beaujolais seems to spreading far beyond its borders, France has finessed a balance between its (very important) traditions and a modern social currency. I mean, there is still a reason most of the rest of the wine world tries to copy the French. So amid the revival of French cuisine on these shores—perhaps a reasoned response to the red-meat New Nostalgia of the Trump years—French wines will continue to rally.
The End of the Celebrity Sommelier?
Around the time Mario Batali’s star was being yanked from the firmament, a more general and key question went around: Is the era of the rock-star chef over? That pointed to a related wine question: Has the run of the celebrity sommelier completed its course?
In both cases, a probable yes—and on the second half, I’d assert that the recent fixation on sommeliers as stars hasn’t ultimately done the profession, or the larger wine world, much good. In particular, I’d highlight a certain book from last spring that offered entertaining if hagiographic sommelier tales, as told through the eyes of an outsider. Yes, entertaining. But what it completely lacked was any storytelling energy saved for actual winemakers.
To be clear: Sommeliers’ work is essential to the restaurant industry, even as it gets more complex with time. But between movies, a TV show, the aforementioned book and so on, we’ve redirected a lot of energy and attention away from things most consumers would like to know about wine—what to buy and drink—and turned the act of curation into a fetish. And that actually punishes the many talented sommeliers who haven’t amassed the right PR fairy dust, and who work hard in relative obscurity.
None of that is to say great wine directors should remain obscure—if anything, good talent should be getting more space in restaurant reviews, an item on my wish list from 2017, actually. And by no means should we just turn our hagiographic energies back toward winemakers. But we all have a right to expect smart, clear-eyed perspective on wine—as well as more actual focus on the wines we drink.
Speaking of Wine Lists…
One really positive development that showed up in 2017, and will hopefully continue in 2018, is that would-be natural wines are, at least in the U.S. (and London, too), moving out of specialist wine bars and onto more traditional wine lists. They’re sharing space somewhat seamlessly with… whatever we call wines that don’t self-identify as natural. Mainstream wines?
This includes high-profile restaurants like Union Square Cafe, or the newly opened Fausto, where wine director Joe Campanale has placed Haut Planty’s minimalist Muscadet, Gwin Evan, next to wines like Massican’s Annia and Picariello’s amazing Ciro 906 fiano. One way to see this is as natural wines quietly invading a traditional space. Another, which is how I prefer to interpret it, is as really smart sommeliers working with wines they deem to be exceptional—without worrying that much about the lines that naturalists and others want to draw.
At the same time, natural lists will proliferate in spots with more diverse cuisines than their original matchup of French-touched néobistro food. Like, for example, the trend I witnessed in Japan of pairing natural wines with various Chinese cuisines (previously sighted in New York at Fung Tu, now at Mission Chinese Food). Also pizza (Del Popolo in San Francisco, and surely at the prodigal Una Pizza Napoletana, set to open in a few months with help from team Contra); seafood, both sushi and otherwise (look no further than Gloria); and more.
California Approaches Its Next Chapter
It’s not like the rash of sales of important California wineries this year was unexpected, although the magnitude of some of the names (read: Calera) was a surprise. This led me to wonder what might be next for America’s largest wine-producing state; my concerns were underscored by the fall fires, which added even more instability to wine country’s already precarious economics.
As 2018 arrives, where do we find ourselves? The question of land prices is anything but resolved, and it’s still damn hard for a young winemaker to launch her own label. But after a bit of stasis, there are new names yet again appearing. Some of the latest: Krater, Little Frances, Frenchtown Farms, Halcyon, Jaimee Motley, Wilson Foreigner, Margins, Unturned Stone and Black Trumpet. And more are appearing each month, often born (in proud California tradition) out of assistant winemakers’ bootstrapping efforts.
I don’t take this to mean California wine’s growth worries are in any way resolved. But it’s inching closer to finding a healthy path forward.
English Sparkling Wine Breaks Out
Somewhere around 2007 I got completely fixated on the idea of English sparkling wine. After much work, I located a few bottles of Nyetimber (now, as then, a leading producer) at a Dallas liquor store and had them shipped to me at some expense.
Ten years later, it’s grown a lot easier to find these wines. The English sparkling wine industry is booming—with producers like Ridgeview on track to nearly double their production. U.S. importers have finally caught on as well; in New York alone you can find not just Nyetimber but Gusborne, Ridgeview, Wiston Estate and several others.
Why is anyone bothering, when the price difference from Champagne is small? Simple: There are relatively few truly new frontiers in wine, but southern England is one. And its pedigree is not in question, in that the chalky subsoils found in Sussex approximate those found in Champagne. The Champenois are aware of this, which is why Taittinger became the first Champagne house to plant UK vineyards in 2017, with several others considering it. (Duval-Leroy and Roederer were reportedly already doing so a decade ago.)
This isn’t a bad idea considering that England is Champagne’s top export market by volume. But it’s more that these are legitimately new and interesting wines from a place not long ago considered too cold to ever make wine. There are a lot of things in wine to worry about where climate change is concerned. Here’s one small upside.
It’s not that there isn’t much to love about Spanish wine. It’s that we writerly types fight an uphill battle. We blather about sherry (always and forever) or the Canary Islands or Ribeira Sacra, and then most of America yawns and goes back to their Rioja and Rias Baixas albariño, if they bother at all.
This is partly because Spain has lacked an elevator story—a unified theory as to why people should pay attention. It had one, sort of, in the early 2000s when a lot of very big and oaky wine showed up and offered what the Rhône and California were offering, only cheaper. But the Priorat monotone got tiring and expensive, and a girl can only drink so much 15-percent Calatayud garnacha.
Once again, it feels like there’s a legitimate unifying tale on the horizon—signs of transformative change in just about every region, as evidenced by the winemakers profiled in critic Luis Gutiérrez’s compelling new book, The New Vignerons. This includes new icons like Pedro Rodriguez Pérez of Ribeira Sacra’s Guímaro and the Envínate crew, but also new blood in Jumilla and even Ribera del Duero. They join traditionalists in places like the Gredos mountains and even Rioja, naturalists in Catalonia and so on. Overall, this might finally be the context for a new generation to fall in love with Spanish wine, in a completely different mode from 15 years ago. That’s precisely how the French wine renaissance came about, after all.
Other Bits and Pieces
The New South America was poised for a while, and is about ready for its redefining moment. And while it’s too early to proclaim a great new chapter for Mexican wine, the surprise success of the Bichi wines from Baja California did not go unnoticed.
Wine in a can becomes widely accepted, and not a novelty. It’s too good an idea not to.
Chenin blanc continues its takeover from riesling as the grape beloved by nerds—yet faces the stark realization that riesling never actually managed to break through.
Having snatched top Burgundy properties like Clos de Tart and Clos des Lambrays for ungodly sums of money, LVMH and François Pinault will continue to duel over what remains of the world’s luxury wine properties—aided by counterparts like Martin Bouyges, who recently acquired the Loire’s famous Clos Rougeard.
The great quality revolution that lifted Austria and Greece keeps moving eastward. We keep seeing wines from Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic that feel contemporary, in part thanks to a raft of young minimalist winemakers like Milan Nestarec, and a fan base for them in spots like the New York wine bar Ruffian.
Finally, the roster of self-published natural wine media keeps expanding. Is this serving a need unmet by what’s left of traditional wine media, or do naturalists just want to separate themselves off from the rest of the wine world and claim their own sandbox? We will find out in 2018.