The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001


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This past year has been superlative for wine

by David Marglin

At the outset of this year, I predicted that 2000 would be all about the love of Burgundian varietals: pinot noir and chardonnay. I also predicted the imminent rise of both red and white Rhône varietals: syrah, grenache, roussanne, viognier, and so on. And given all the millennium buzz about Champagne, I forecasted a thriving market for sparkling wine, with continued appreciation for its overall versatility and value.

On the whole, I am comfortable with how these predictions panned out. Red Burgundies from 1996 have all but disappeared from store shelves (and even from a number of wine lists). The exquisite 1998 Oregon pinots are being snapped up as they are released, and so are the 1997 Sonomas. It's a matter of palate evolution: when folks are new to wine, merlot, cabs, and zins are easier to approach. But pinot noirs are seductive -- so evolved, so graceful, with the best of them balancing fruit and earth and spice and delicate perfumes. While many imported pinots are unpredictable, American efforts from the West Coast and now from Long Island appear to be relatively sturdy and very good values. If you haven't gotten into pinot noir, now is a darned good time to start.

I may have been a bit off the mark with my predictions regarding chardonnay, however. It's still the leading American varietal by a veritable landslide, and to my taste, it's still the safest way to go when you are unsure about other white wines. But I think its popularity is on the wane. In the Wine Spectator's annual Top 100, there are only two white wines in the top 45 this year, both California chardonnays, and neither is in the top 15. Serious wine drinkers are getting entrenched in red wines; when they do venture over into the white side of the world, they are opting for new, more exciting flavors. In addition to the Rhône varietals mentioned above, everyone is grooving on the German/Alsatian rieslings, gewürztraminers, pinot gris, and even pinot blancs. Sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs are also showing real increases in market share.

Perhaps the most significant development of 2000 was the desire to proclaim "best" vintages. Wine Spectator is not alone in having declared at least three this year: 1997 Italian reds (especially Tuscans), 1998 Rhônes, and 1997 Napa cabernets. The media love to pick winners, and make life (too?) simple for us. Declaring a vintage as the "Year of the Century" (or decade, or whatever) provides consumers with a great safety net -- it doesn't matter what you buy, because all the wines were great that year. This kind of thinking is valuable in certain instances -- if, for example, you want to get people to try relatively obscure wines from an often overlooked region, it helps to alert them to the fact that they sorta can't go wrong. But Italy has had many great years recently: 1990, 1997, and 1998 were all superb, and 1995 was pretty good too. The same is true with Napa cabs. What the press is doing is playing the game -- moving bottles, putting pressure on you to buy, arming you with ammunition.

The best thing about 2000 was that hegemonies started to crack. Laws against direct shipping were overturned by several courts (although one of those decisions -- in Indiana -- was reversed on appeal). Wine buyers around these parts really started to branch out. Retailers found it a lot easier to move obscure bottles and reported customers' general appetite for new wines and uncharted tastes. Around the world, many wine regions really came into their own. The Lands Down Under, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile, all sold us plenty of wine. The South Americans released many indifferent vintages (1998 was pretty much a disaster year), but their reputation allowed them to sell a lot of product. While California saw uneven vintages in 1998 and 1999 (and another potential hit-or-miss in 2000), this brought all the skills, techniques, and prowess of the state's great winemakers to the fore. Climate conditions were not so dismal as to preclude making good wine, but they needed a combination of skill and luck to make great wine.

When you add it all up, 2000 was a year in which most wine prices remained stable or dropped slightly (as in Champagne and Bordeaux). There was an abundance of great wines on the shelves, but many of them were not the usual suspects. Wine consumption is going up, especially in the super-premium (above $10 a bottle) categories. Wine lovers are accumulating lots of knowledge and making it their mission to try new things. Judging by the phenomenal success of events like Boston's Wine Expo (and other such taste-a-ton-of-wine events for consumers), wine fanatics and initiates alike are broadening their selections. Who knows, even chardonnay may soon lose some of its sway. We are moving beyond the world where knowing and drinking only merlot or cab or chard is sufficient; new experiences are the order of the day.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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