Wine: Here's to a corking year ahead

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Wine might be the last thing on everyone's mind, and lips, tomorrow and for the rest of next month. But for us wine watchers, there's no such respite - 2006 begins with a burgundy bang. Only a week into the new year, the burgundy specialists arrive in London for a series of tastings, trying to convince us to buy the 2004 vintage. It's all part of their campaign to claim back some of the fine wine territory ceded to Bordeaux. Whether or not it's a vintage to buy en primeur, or as futures, remains to be seen. But the burgundy grape got a boost from the hit movie Sideways, and interest in the best of the new pinot noirs is bound to grow.

Hot on the heels of the burgundy bonanza, Australia and New Zealand come to London to show their 2005 vintage. Latest figures show yet another increase in exports to the UK, and nothing can topple Australia's number-one position. Which is just as well, as the wineries in Oz are bursting at the seams after another bumper harvest in 2005. The massive surplus means that Australian wine will be back this year in the £3.99 market, according to Jonathan Scott, of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation. Also from the Antipodes, New Zealand's 2005 vintage looks like giving us a host of mouthwatering sauvignon blancs.

Spring brings another duty hike of 5p per bottle on wine. Fine-wine drinkers - rather than investors - could, though, benefit unexpectedly from the Chancellor's pension reforms. Until this month, the new personal pension provisions (Sipps) were expected to allow tax relief for investment-grade wines bought as pensions. Fine-wine merchants have accordingly bought like lottery winners hoping customers will provide for the future with wine. Gordon Brown's U-turn in his pre-budget statement could leave them with surplus stocks on their hands. If merchants have to dispose of them fast, consumers could be treated to a windfall of fine wines going for a song. More likely, I'm afraid, is that merchants will redouble efforts to sell on the increasingly active world market instead.

The last thing we need is artificial inflation of fine-wine prices from statute-induced scarcity. Any halfway decent new vintage is dubbed the vintage of the century. The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux, though, could justify the tag, and if it turns out to be another 2000 or 1990 (the previous two "vintages of the century"), there will be huge global demand early next summer for the top 50 or so "must-have" Bordeaux châteaux. Meanwhile, the rest of us - good-wine lovers, not collectors and investors - should be able to pick up some seriously good claret for cellaring at reasonable prices.

A successful en primeur campaign for Bordeaux won't stem France's decline. Only Champagne appears immune. Australia and, latterly, Chile, California, Argentina and South Africa have succeeded where France has failed, in selling wine as an everyday drink. These countries, particularly South Africa, whose quality and diversity is being recognised, will thrive. France has its work cut out to compete.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain and Greece look hot. And German riesling hopes for a World Cup boost to impressive figures showing that sales of wine above £6 have grown 89 per cent in the past three years. It will be a good year for the rosés, and sweet wines, too.

One cloud on the horizon: the continued shrinking of supermarket ranges. In the coming, excellent year for wine, it will pay to know exactly what and where to buy.

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