Wine: 1998 and all that

Anthony Rose raises a glass to the year ahead; California celebrated 1997 with such a massive crop that pundits are predicting a 43-million-case surplus by the next vintage

Vintages used to come around, like Christmas, but once a year. The growing importance of the southern hemisphere has changed all that, but while Australia, Chile, South Africa and, latterly, Argentina have raised their game, the northern hemisphere is back in business this year, albeit from an unexpected quarter in California.

If you are a fan of Chardonnay, rejoice, because, in 1998, your cup will be overflowing with the stuff. The Golden State celebrated 1997 with such a massive crop that pundits are predicting a 43-million-case surplus by the next vintage. "We'd left selling Chardonnay at pounds 3.99 to Chile and Argentina in the past two years," says California Wine Institute director in London, John McLaren, "but now we're back." There is a caveat, however. Australia has already shown that it can't compete with South America at that price level. If California fails to deliver good wine at pounds 3.99, it would be a setback to its aim to develop its image as a quality producer across a range of prices.

Mike Paul, UK director of Australia's biggest wine company, Southcorp, sees the 1997 California harvest as "hugely significant this year and even more so in 1999". Already, he claims, American companies are reneging on contracts with Chile. And if Chile and Argentina are discouraged from venturing Stateside, there's a good chance of more of their well-priced wine coming our way. The Chardonnay glut will, in turn, make it more difficult for Australia to increase its prices.

The boom in red-wine drinking shows no sign of abating. Three in every five bottles we drink may still be white, but take Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco out of the equation - as many would like - and it's a different story. Within the next year to 18 months, Asda, for one, reckons it will be selling more red wine than white. As evidence of the effect on prices, key Australian brands such as Rawson's Retreat and Orlando's Jacob's Creek have finally leapt the pounds 5 hurdle.

Despite the efforts of winemakers like Kym Milne and Hugh Ryman in South Africa, and the excellence of its more expensive estate wines, the Cape remains in urgent need of a middle range - reds in particular at between pounds 4.50 and pounds 6 - to raise its profile.

Back in classic-wine territory, the resounding end-of-year silence from Bordeaux suggests that unless chateau owners drop prices in a fit of atypical generosity, there will be no rush to buy the Bordeaux 1997 vintage when it goes on sale. This is because the vintage looks like being more variable in quality than 1995 and 1996.

The market for fine wines generally, particularly at the top end, has dipped in the face of the financial turmoil in the Far East. According to Jonathan Stephens of Farr Vintners: "There's been a noticeable softening of prices at auction recently. Sotheby's Latour sale, for instance, did not go well. There's no way of knowing if it's a temporary glitch or a re-adjustment, but it does seem safer to concentrate on the middle market, where price is more closely related to quality."

If the bull market continues to recede, 1998 could be an excellent opportunity to buy fine wines at relatively reasonable prices. Burgundy, for instance, is generally less affected by market conditions than Bordeaux. Champagne, on the other hand, looks set to increase prices in the spring.

If the pound weakens against foreign currencies, wine prices will inevitably rise. In the meanwhile, if you're not overfussy about quality, the cross- Channel run will still be an attractive way to do your drink shopping, especially as Chancellor Brown's duty hikes begin to bite.

In the high street, the momentum for synthetic corks and screwcaps will gather pace as the supermarkets take the lead in the battle against cork taint. "It's plain that cork can't be remedied within our lifetime," says Safeway wine department controller, Liz Robertson, who would like to see all Safeway's wines bearing synthetic corks. "There should be no difficulty with consumer acceptance, as long as the synthetics are of good quality," she claims. Roll on Chateau Lafite in screwcap

Regions and labels to look out for in 1998

France: 1996 Burgundy; 1995 Rhone: Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas and Cairanne; 1995 Languedoc-Roussillon: Pic Saint Loup, St-Chinian, Faugeres; 1995 Provence: Costieres de Nimes; 1996/97 Loire: Muscadet sur lie, Sancerre. Spain: Albarino from Galacia and 1994 Rioja Reservas, from Baron de Ley, Marques de Riscal, Campillo, Lorinon, Martinez Bujanda, Vina Ijalba, Artadi. Germany: 1996 Mosel and Rheinpfalz; South Africa: L'Avenir, Haute Provence, Fairview, Warwick, Jordan, Plaisir de Merle. Argentina: Catena, Norton, Vistalba, La Agricola. Chile: Valdivieso, Errazuriz, Morande, Carmen, Casa Lapostolle, Vina La Rose, Vina Gracia; Italy: Puglia, Sardinia; Hungary: Neszmely.

White wine of the week 1997 Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, pounds 8.99, Oddbins. Villa Maria's basic 1997 Sauvignon Blanc is good, its Cellar Selection better, but the top-of-the-range Clifford Bay Reserve is by far the most intense of the trio, showing assertive aromatic pungency and the underlying, exotic passion fruit and gooseberry richness of low-yielding Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, made, surprisingly perhaps, from relatively young vines.

Red wine of the week 1995 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, pounds 7.99, Oddbins, Sainsbury's, Fuller's. Based in Mendocino, north of California's Napa Valley, the Fetzer family has been one of the major pioneers of organic wines from California. Made from organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Bonterra is a sweetly ripe, blackcurranty red with succulent clarity of fruit flavour and a rather obvious veneer of spicy new oak which will soften down over the coming months.

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