“Prediction,” goes an old Danish proverb, “is hazardous, especially about the future.” For a freelance wine journalist, however, the hazard is hardly life-threatening. Indeed, any prophesies about wine that turn out to be false are unlikely to incur significant wrath or an instant dismissal. But spare a thought for advisors to the Egyptian Pharaohs, who were promptly put to death should their predictions about the crop harvest fail to materialize. You could say that Pharaoh Khufu was the Donald Trump of his time.
That being said, making predictions about wine trends is surely fraught with problems. Over the past week, I’ve read a multitude of stories about what 2019 might have in store. According to the IWSR, imports to China will supposedly increase by 8 percent next year, despite China’s slowing economy and uncertainties of a US-China trade war. Meanwhile, lower-alcohol and alcohol-free wines will continue to rocket in popularity, while Prosecco‘s global popularity will apparently wane and be supplanted by competitors such as Cremant and New World sparkling.
Of course, a few years ago, many were convinced that Sherry would take the British wine scene by storm, and we all know how well that turned out, don’t we? Consumption of Sherry in the UK continues to fall, as it happens, adding weight to the argument that to predict is always utter folly. Like a gigantic woolly mammoth, the wine trade is very slow to change direction, and so all prophesies about consumer trends should be taken with a gigantic pinch of salt.
My two favorites of late are the aforementioned Prosecco nonsense and the idea that consumers are tiring of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, instead preferring a glass of Albarino, Verdicchio, etc. Balls. Prosecco has proven itself to be very price-inelastic and stubbornly popular, while New Zealand is the only country showing significant growth in both volume and value in the UK market, according to Nielsen. And yes, NZ doesn’t just send Sauvignon Blanc abroad, but it does account for the vast majority of exports to markets like Blighty.
However, it’s clear that 2019 is going to hinge on the Brexit result, both for the British wine trade and its European wine partners. If we leave with a bang, shifting from frictionless trade to WTO rules, then the short term future for everyday French, Spanish and Italian wine exported to the UK is bleak. It’s a gift to political journalists, a massive headache for everyone else.
I’d also bet my life savings (12 shillings and 5 pence) that still wine consumption across Europe will continue to fall. Even the Brits, renowned for their boorish behavior and rampant binge-drinking, are imbibing less. Ten years ago, the suggestion of a Dry January and Sober October would have been met with gargantuan guffaws; now we gather round the coffee machine to boast about our alcohol-free days. In addition, the beverage choice continues to grow and emerging adults are showing every indication that they consider intoxication or even the occasional tipple passé. Cannabis is another obvious competitor and the major story in 2018. European producers and their distributors are going to have to provide a better reason for younger British, Italian and French customers to buy their wines.
The neurosis about making it lighter, cleaner and fresher is also unlikely to die a death in the years to come. Flavor fascism, and the rising obsession with reigning it in – particularly in Australia – shows no sign of abating. Limpid, tense and flinty Chardonnay seems to be all the rage in Oz, and to a lesser extent NZ, even if that’s what the terroir doesn’t necessarily want to provide. For taste has changed, the trade insists, and higher acidity, lower alcohol and fresher flavors are all popular again, at least in the specialist on-trade sphere. But I’ve seen no evidence that consumers at large, particularly in the US, have rejected ripe and fleshy, it’s just harder to find that style in today’s world. Still, the demise of Australia in traditional export markets, many would argue, is precisely because many believe that the country still predominantly churns out uber-ripe, sunshine-in-a-bottle premium plonk, despite that clearly not being the case anymore.
Which is ironic, as you’d think global warming would have led to a massive proliferation of the aforementioned “fruit bomb” caricature. Yet at first glance, the vignerons of Europe seem hardly to have stirred. The list of Bordeaux‘s classed growths and Burgundy‘s grand crus are no longer than they were – to my knowledge – and these regions may deny that they have changed in any essential way. They remain defined by the vines and the soil they inherit. Their terroir is their very being.
And therein lies their problem – terroir is increasingly under threat. Talk of 15 percent alcohol levels in Burgundy after the 2018 harvest and making still wine in Champagne demonstrates how fragile terroir is. Rigid appellations rules and structures are going to have to adapt – winemakers are already getting around them by planting ‘forbidden’ grape varieties and searching for cooler terroirs. Hybrid varieties are also likely to become more popular in Europe, while higher altitudes will be considered the Nirvana of good viticulture in the years to come.
We’re also beginning to discover new flavors, as climate change is a boon for aspiring winemakers in northerly climes. It cartwheeled all my preconceptions when recently I drank a Polish Pinot Noir, grown on a limestone slope over the Vistula river. England too is racing to cover its green landscape with vitis vinifera. A far cry from the picture 30 years ago, when English wine was accused of tasting of rain.
Lastly, the humble 75cl glass bottle is under threat and will lose its monopoly – discounting bag-in-the-box – on ferrying wine from the warehouse to your front room. Alternative formats such as pouches and cans are rising in popularity, and can only become more commonplace, especially in emerging markets such as sub-Sahara Africa where bottles are far less useful than single-serve vessels. Moreover, as the industry skews toward a younger generation, the market for alternative packaging will surely grow. Grand Cru Chablis in a can anyone? My guess is that in thirty year’s time such an idea will be regarded as commercially savvy, rather than a heinous crime.