Drink in the future

Will this be the year that Argentina's winemakers prove they can take on Australians at their own game, or will we all turn Portuguese?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Weather depredations, harvest variations and currency fluctuations make it hard to predict wine trends at the best of times. This year should exceed all forecasts of unpredictability, not least thanks to the combined forces of El Niño and La Niña continuing to cause problems in South America and the Antipodes. Despite the uncertainties, it is occasionally possible to discern some trends emerging.

Weather depredations, harvest variations and currency fluctuations make it hard to predict wine trends at the best of times. This year should exceed all forecasts of unpredictability, not least thanks to the combined forces of El Niño and La Niña continuing to cause problems in South America and the Antipodes. Despite the uncertainties, it is occasionally possible to discern some trends emerging.

To start with a statement of the obvious, chardonnay is not going to go away. It is reliable and good value and, OK, they said that about Marks & Spencer, but well-made chardonnay, whether white, burgundy or New World, is still an irresistible drink. Its devotees will rejoice in the news of a global chardonnay glut, which means cheap, gluggy chardonnay ad nauseam.

The downside of a continuing chardonnay fixation is that more interesting whites will have to struggle harder to grab our attention. Viognier, the unctuous, full-bodied dry Rhÿne Valley white, which, with its characteristic scent of apricots, will stay hot for a while to come. But it is pricey, except in the Languedoc.

Italy's aromatic whites deserve a wider audience, while Galicia's subtle, also aromatic albariño looks set for trendy status. It may be wishful thinking, but the same goes for riesling. Not the sugary, discredited confections of yesteryear, but the delicately fruity yet dry rieslings emerging from Australia, supported by Austria, South Africa, New Zealand and Alsace.

Red wines will be in greater demand than ever. Cabernet sauvignon is losing its stranglehold on the worldwide red- wine market to merlot, the blander partner of the bordeaux duo. The smart money is on softer, aromatic reds.

The first group of wine is based on the two non-bordeaux premium French grapes, the pinot noir grape of burgundy and the syrah of the northern Rhÿne, aka shiraz in Australia.

The second takes it cue from emerging local varieties, among them Argentina's juicy malbecs, Spain's versatile tempranillo, spicy zinfandel from California and pinotage from South Africa. Italy's south is a case in point with affordable reds made from local Puglian and Sicilian grape varieties: primitivo, negroamaro and nero d'avola. Portuguese reds too will be on the agenda once we get our tongues round the plethora of hard-to-pronounce native grape varieties: castelão françês (or periquita), baga from Bairrada, aragonês from Alentejo and tinto cão, touriga nacional and touriga francesa from the Douro Valley.

In Spain, Priorat is the region with clout, but it is pricier even than the fine 1995 rioja reservas coming on stream this year. For budget reds, look out for the emerging regions of Yecla, Tarragona and Jumilla.

Back in France, Bordeaux prayed to the heavens for 1999 to be a great vintage year, not least because 1999 would be the first of a trio of vintages desired by serious wine-collectors for their cellars. The heavens responded by opening and dumping copious quantities of rain on the region during the critical harvest period. The 1999 vintage sales campaign which gets underway in April will be greeted with muted enthusiasm unless prices come down dramatically. That'll be the day.

Burgundy fared better generally than Bordeaux throughout the 1990s. And 1998 was no exception, but it wasn't an exceptional vintage either. It is starting to trickle on to the market this month, with fair to average white wine quality and average to good for reds. There's no immediate rush to buy, even if burgundy's much smaller quantities than Bordeaux do put greater pressure on the top wines, but I'll report on some of the better offers during the year.

As for champagne, supermarkets stocked up heavily to avoid being caught out before New Year, so expect bargains on supermarket own-label champagnes, anything calling itself "millennium cuvée" and lesser brands like Heidsieck, Monopole and Mercier. The most sought-after brands - Lanson, Moët, Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot - are in short supply. Some will raise prices. With pressure on companies to release champagne before it's sufficiently aged, beware some young and green champagnes coming on the market during the year.

Elsewhere, the South of France remains the most exciting up-and-coming French region for affordable reds with enclaves of growing quality such as Pic Saint Loup and the Coteaux du Languedoc, where 1998 was a fine vintage and many of these will be coming on the market this year. Australia, with the Australian dollar weak against the pound and new plantings keeping grape prices stable, is likely regain its competitive edge this year. 1998 follows 1996 and 1994 as yet another spectacular vintage. From New Zealand, the sauvignon blanc is looking promising in 1999.

Chile is still unbeatable for classy cabernet sauvignon - perhaps the best value of any wine-producing country, while there are signs that South Africa is beginning to flesh out its hitherto weak middle range. Argentina is no longer the dark horse it used to be. If it still lags behind the rest of the southern hemisphere, it's catching up fast as international investors fall over themselves to get in on the action. But to do an Australia and establish an image of quality at the right price, it still has to demonstrate that it can tango without twisting a well-turned ankle.

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