Are higher wine prices on the horizon for 2008? The pressure is building. Short harvests in key wine-producing countries such as Australia and Italy are likely to have a knock-on effect on prices. And a powerful new temperance lobby calling itself the Alcohol Health Alliance is pushing for raising taxes to discourage under-age binge drinking. They are also holding out for warning labels, but maybe they should take a leaf out of the Burgundy-loving David Blunkett's book. "If you frighten people to death and tell them that their two glasses a night is suddenly too much, they'll stop believing you," he says, adding "as Shadow Health Secretary, I went to a number of health conferences and I found that medics never follow their own advice."
Champagne will be one of the most visible victims of price rises this year. Having paid substantially more for their grapes last year to feed the growth of their brands, the major champagne houses have already announced that prices will rise by up to 10 per cent. Pink champagne in particular is on a roll, so if you've got a big celebration coming up this year, now is the time to take advantage of any lingering post-Christmas deals before prices rise steeply.
On the fine wine front, one region that's unlikely to see huge price hikes is Bordeaux. Despite September sunshine bringing a last-minute reprieve to the 2007 harvest, a disastrously wet summer and its accompanying low expectations point to an average vintage at best with little consumer enthusiasm for buying en primeur (pre-release) in the spring. While 2006 has turned out better than expected – "classic" in the euphemism of the wine trade – it was no great year for buying early either. That should at least firm up the values of clarets from the excellent 2005, 2003 and 2000 vintages, while the more reasonably priced 2001, 2002 and 2004 clarets come on stream for earlier drinking.
Always later to come out of the starting block than Bordeaux, Burgundy has been holding tastings of the as-yet-unbottled 2006 vintage in London. This year may not be in the mould of the great 2005 vintage, but it is starting to look as though both whites and reds will make delicious drinking in the short to medium term. Since Burgundy doesn't suffer from the price hype that afflicts Bordeaux in a good vintage – and bearing in mind that it's made in much smaller quantities – savvy consumers with post-New Year sales cash to burn might hold something back for the imminent 2006 Burgundy en primeur offers. Watch this space for a report in a couple of weeks. In the year to come, we also have the excellent 2004 rioja reservas and chianti classico riservas to look forward to, along with some fast-improving Portuguese and southern Italian reds and rieslings from Germany, Alsace, Austria and the New World.
On the high street, in case you were wondering why your local Oddbins has morphed into a Nicolas, it's because Castel, owner of both companies, has started a gradual process of converting the once-great high-street chain into Nicolas branches. Sadly, 2008 could see the final curtain call for Oddbins. Somerfield and Morrisons need to raise their game following the recent departures of their respective long-serving wine buyers. Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Asda though are on the up, while Sainsbury's continues to dither. Independent wine merchants are fighting back thanks in part to our growing confidence in the internet and improved online services. Could they be threatened by a new virtual wine selector being tested by Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's allowing shoppers to choose wines to match foods and occasions? I doubt it. The best independents are still the place to go for the most interesting retail and mail-order ranges.