A year in wine - sweet or dry?

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The Independent Online

The global glut Gulp! We face a glut of cheap wines flooding the market as a coming global grape surplus - equal to between six and nine billion bottles of wine - creates a massive oversupply. Bathing in chardonnay, great, but not such good news for potential victims of massive dumping of gut-pickling plonk. Some of the figures are scary. Spain, France and Italy each have three million hectares between them, yet there are more vineyards outside Europe than in. California and Australia, with massive new plantings, have another one-fifth to a quarter of their entire production yet to come on stream. Oddly, China has the most rapid growth, with more vineyards - not all for wine - than South Africa or Australia.

The global glut Gulp! We face a glut of cheap wines flooding the market as a coming global grape surplus - equal to between six and nine billion bottles of wine - creates a massive oversupply. Bathing in chardonnay, great, but not such good news for potential victims of massive dumping of gut-pickling plonk. Some of the figures are scary. Spain, France and Italy each have three million hectares between them, yet there are more vineyards outside Europe than in. California and Australia, with massive new plantings, have another one-fifth to a quarter of their entire production yet to come on stream. Oddly, China has the most rapid growth, with more vineyards - not all for wine - than South Africa or Australia.

Dot-commerce Buying wine online is a medium which will suit wine retailing as long as the clicks and mortar of fulfilment - as they call service and deliver - are in place. Virginwines.com already has egg on its face for significantly failing to deliver its BOGOF (buy-one-get-one-free) promotion on time. Supermarkets in joint ventures such as the Sainsbury's-Oddbins tie-up are set to do well. Even so, a recent study of 15 online wine retailers commended Berry Bros & Rudd for its ease of ordering and use, showing that a well-organised, independent wine merchant, can also compete. Wine Planet.com, which was also highly commended, looks like nosediving as spectacularly as it launched.

Bordeaux 2000 As volumes increase at the mass-market level, top-end producers and expensive super cuvées are in greater demand than ever. For the first time since 1990, vintage 2000 is being hailed as a great year in Bordeaux, so the stakes will be high in the pre-release launch in the spring. Sensible players in Bordeaux futures, such as Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus, are doing their best to spray cold water on the proceedings. They're unlikely to succeed. The hottest cakes will be snapped up quickly and expensively, so avoid label-gazing and stick to more affordable wines for good future drinking.

Fine wine futures Before the new Bordeaux in the spring comes the opportunity to look at Burgundy's 1999 vintage, as more and more specialist wine merchants make January the time to show and offer their red and white burgundies. Burgundy, like rhÿne, is becoming increasingly a now-or-never wine. Buy it now en primeur or pre-release, for the simple reason that compared to bordeaux, there aren't the quantities to go around. By the time they do get on regular merchants' lists, if they ever do, the best burgundies (and rhÿnes) have become prohibitively expensive.

Future fine wines Beyond bordeaux and burgundy, 1999 is the vintage to go for in the northern Rhÿne, while 1998 is being talked of as the vintage of the decade in the southern Rhÿne. Look out especially for the top wines of châteauneuf-du-pape and, even better value, of gigondas and vacqueyras. In Tuscany, 1997 was the vintage of the decade, so snap up all the chianti classico you can and watch out for riservas. For those who can afford bank-busting barolo and barbaresco, 1996 and 1997 are also spectacular, while from Spain, the trio of vintages from 1994-1996 in Rioja has produced a clutch of great wines.

Future affordable wines At the affordable level, 1998 was a superb vintage in the south of France, so look out in particular for red wines from Pic St-Loup, Faugÿres and the Coteaux du Languedoc. Southern Italy, especially with primitivo and negroamaro, is gathering pace. Even-numbered vintages have proved better than odds in Australia this decade and 1998 was a miraculous year, producing wonderful shiraz. Thanks to El Niño, 1998 had the opposite effect in Argentina, but the last couple of vintages have been kind to South America. The wines of Chile and Argentina will be even better value than ever in 2001.

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