Drinks: 1993: the cork is out of the bottle: Wine prices are under pressure as the single market comes into effect, but too much penny-pinching could force those in the industry to cut a few corners, warns Anthony Rose
Could this force the Chancellor to bring duty into line with our partners by cutting the rate on EC wines in the Budget? It would put a rosier complexion on shopping at Thresher, unless you are buying New World wines.
The new guide levels for imported drinks, which replaced the old duty-free allowances on 1 January, should give a boost to wine tour operators, as vineyard-visiting becomes a more tempting prospect. If there is no devaluation of the French franc, brush up now on your Spanish and Italian and phrases such as caveat emptor - buyer beware. Visiting a vineyard can be a wonderful way to idle away part (or all) of a holiday, as long as you remember there is no obligation to buy. I was told of a grower in Sancerre who charges an entrance fee. Anyone that desperate should be avoided.
At home, the bargain-hunting spirit is likely to make the competition between supermarkets and off-licences at price levels of pounds 2.99, pounds 3.99 and pounds 4.99 hotter than ever, with occasional forays into the pounds 1.99 loss-leader zone. The trouble with penny-pinching is that it creates all sorts of pressures from buyers through to producers to cut corners, not the least of which is for buyers to choose the cheaper blend in preference to the better-quality one. The buyers I have spoken to say they are against lowering quality in this underhand way. But they may have no alternative.
The new year kicked off with news to gladden the hearts of an endangered species, the sherry drinker. Thanks to legal action by the sherry producers against the Government (for treating so- called British sherry more favourably than the real thing from Jerez), agreement has been reached on a reduction in the duty on sherry. Current levels of 42 per cent will drop to 25 per cent by 1996, with reductions applying to all fortified wines such as port and madeira. The effect will be to bring the duty on a bottle of sherry down by 8p this year and of port by around 30p, although how much of this is passed on to the consumer remains to be seen. Further phased reductions will follow over the next three years, which should leave sherry 54p cheaper overall and port roughly pounds 3 cheaper.
Unless you have been in hibernation for the past three months, you will know that much of France suffered a pretty average vintage in 1992, nowhere more so than Bordeaux. It looks as if there will be no en primeur (futures) market for the second year running. This is a blessing in disguise. Prices in the Eighties were too high for too long. So we can expect plenty of fine wine bargains this year, like some of those that were around at Christmas. We are in a buyer's market once again. Selective buying of earlier vintages of the Eighties, either at auction or through one-off special offers, will be a good way of starting a cellar or filling gaps in an existing one.
This year will be difficult for any producers who still live the lie of the 'If you've got it, charge for it' era. France, Italy and California come first to mind, although all are now taking a crash course in the Nineties school of new realism. A poor 1992 vintage, a strong franc in the wake of Black Wednesday and an increasingly competitive New World could make this a crunch year for France's 'classic regions' in particular.
After successive bumper crops of indifferent quality, a drop in grape prices and pressure on fizz prices from the New World, there is no reason why champagne prices should not continue to fall. In fact, champagne may even go a pound or so better than the pounds 7.99 bottom-dollar 1992 price. However, on the evidence of last year's examples, I would not be in too much of a hurry to celebrate.
Developments outside Western Europe have never been more exciting. Eastern Europe is still more full of dross than promise, but from its bottomless vat of cheap wines there will be some excellent stuff coming from the likes of Bulgaria's go-ahead co- operatives at Russe and Sliven.
Hugh Ryman and the new group of flying winemakers should bring us selective pickings from the east. And now that Moldova is desperate for Western cash, we should soon see a trickle of surprising bordeaux-style reds from one of the few parts of the world whose enormous potential is still untapped.
On current form there is no reason why Australia and New Zealand should not continue to swallow most of the New World column inches, but more New World countries are doing their best to elbow them out, some with more success than others. Chile today is not unlike the rioja of yesteryear, a discovery of often good-value reds (and whites) to watch. The added attraction lies in the fact that Chile has gone down the classic varietal route of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Expect ripples if not waves from Argentina, a country which some believe has even greater potential than Chile.
South Africa remains an enigma, still promising more than it delivers. Now that its industry is moving towards a market economy, we will see more cheap, good-value wines - whites in particular - from the better co-operatives such as Robertson. If the estates get their pricing right, there could be some fine wines, too, notably from Rustenberg, Thelema Mountain and Neil Ellis. South Africa also has the potential to produce sparkling wine to rival Australia in quality, although again the value equation is crucial.
California is still the dark horse of the New World. Despite the strong dollar, there could yet be surprises if Oddbins carries out its threat to bring over some good, inexpensive California wines.
And so back to Europe, where the South of France remains the best hope to offset the hot competition from Eastern Europe and the New World. Vins de pays and appellation wines are fast displacing the classic regions for everyday recession drinking.
When the royal appointee, Corney & Barrow, tells us that what its customers want more than anything is 'an expanded selection of keenly priced French country wines', clearly this is the place to explore. The beaujolais crus, too, from 1991, one of the best vintages there in a long while, will be drinking beautifully this year with lots of juicy, soft strawberry fruitiness.
Quantity-wise, there is no reason why Italy's Mezzogiorno should not follow the example of France's Midi. Puglia and Sicily each produce more than most countries. But, so often, southern Italy has failed to live up to expectations. If you can call back in the year 2000, I may have better news.
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