INTERNATIONAL - Most of the wine world was happy to wave goodbye to 2017, a year of vine-killing frosts, hail, drought, and destructive wildfires in regions from California, to Chile, to Europe.
Looking forward to 2018 is not only a relief; it’s exciting, because the year is full of promise. There will be new experimentation, exploration, and the continuing of trends we enjoyed from last year.
The rosé juggernaut, for example, keeps crushing it. With U.S. sales up 57 percent in dollars, our must-drink-pink obsession continues and is even fueling interest in rosé cider and pink gin. And thanks to adventurous younger drinkers thirsty for novelty and affordability, enthusiasm for obscure native grapes, especially from Italy, is still growing fast.
Here’s what I see in my crystal glass for 2018.
Big bottles will be huge
The popularity of wine in magnums (the equivalent of a double bottle) and other large formats seems to track the stock market; when stocks are up, so is big bottle demand. In the U.K., wine retailer Majestic reported a 378 percent increase in sales of affordable supersize bottles last year, at its 200-plus stores.
The trend started with oversize bottles of rosé poured in Saint Tropez, and in 2017 Aldi supermarkets launched inexpensive jeroboams (4 bottles) of prosecco in the U.K. for Christmas.
For those craving luxury wines, Domaine Clarence Dillon (which includes first growth Château Haut Brion) recently launched an online retail site dedicated to sourcing and selling large formats of everything from Beaujolais to Champagne to whisky. A Balthazar (16 bottles) of the polished, syrah-based 2014 Domaine de Montcalmès from the Languedoc is €479; for €15,600 you can have a Salmanazar (12 bottles) of the truly fabulous 2005 Château Haut Brion.
But don’t think too big: the outlandish Melchizedek of Champagne—the equivalent of 40 bottles of fizz—has been known to spontaneously explode.
The year’s hot spot will be Spain
So many regions are poised for attention, it’s hard to single out only one. The Republic of Georgia has captured the hearts of the natural wine crowd, Madeira is on the verge of a moment, Croatia beckons, England is already there, and I’ve been impressed by new avant-garde wines from cool areas of Australia and Chile.
But I predict we’re about to rediscover Spain. Popular culture evidence? Rachel Lindsay, star of the romance reality TV series The Bachelorette, took her final suitors to “romantic” Rioja last summer for a wine tasting in old caves, grape stomping, and a helicopter tour of vineyards.
Seriously, though, a new generation of vignerons is bringing change to every region there, including classic Rioja, and creating reds and whites from such places as Ribeira Sacra and the Gredos mountains with character and quality at bargain prices.
Climate change is heating up
Climate change is affecting so much: The fear of it has encouraged winemakers to adopt better eco-vino vineyard practices and to experiment with new grape varieties. Rising temperatures are also drastically rejiggering wine geography. The steady warming of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, for example, may turn the area into a new source of top pinot noir. Until recently, farmers had little luck growing the grape. Now there are 33 wineries, and more are on the way.
Even the state of Maine is hosting a class this month for farmers who want to grow wine grapes. Is Newfoundland next?
You’ll be buying more wine online
Despite its convenience and range of choices, online wine shopping in the U.S. lags way behind China. Expect a boost in 2018. The primary barriers to growth have been the high cost of shipping and the U.S.’s complicated alcohol regulations. Consumers in 44 states can have wine from any U.S. wineries delivered directly to their doors, but only those in about 14 states can have wine purchases shipped directly from out-of-state retailers, which means they can’t buy a lot of imported wines.
Enter Heini Zachariassen, founder and chief executive officer of wine app Vivino. In December he launched Vivino Premium, which aims to be the Amazon Prime for wine. A $47 annual membership fee gives you free shipping for an amazing selection of wines, even first growths, all shipped legally because Vivino partners with a network of local wine shops. (A one-month free trial is available.)
JD.com, China’s second biggest e-commerce company, plans to capture luxury online wine shoppers there with ultra-premium delivery service. Couriers wearing suits and white gloves were already delivering watches and jewelry; the expansion to wine started last month.
The fizz sector will keep broadening
Bubbly is still bursting old boundaries (as I predicted last year), and prosecco is still grabbing buzz (because of a poor harvest, prices will go up). Look for France’s well-priced crémants from Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, and the Jura to make a splash this year.
The latest luxury sparkler is new upscale Spanish Cava. Major Champagne houses are pushing more single-vineyard bottles and fabulous extra-aged fizz (looking at you, Cristal Vinotheque). And please, let’s have more neighborhood Champagne bars in 2018.
The “luxury experience” way to taste wine
The crowded winery tasting room is now totally passé. The new way to sample vino is all about special experiences and settings—say, while staying at a posh Bordeaux chateau or right after picking grapes in Burgundy, or after spear-fishing in New Zealand. I’ll be excited to visit the just-opened giant glass Cube in an Australian vineyard billed as an Alternate Realities Museum.
Naturally, Napa is all-in on the idea. A handful of swanky reservation-please salons with comfy leather sofas, chandeliers, art-to-buy on the walls, and playlists of oh-so-hip music opened in downtown Napa last year. Top spots so far? Brown Estate, Acumen, Blackbird, and Ackerman’s Aviary.
The rise of robots in the poshest vineyards
When the Rothschild family of Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Clerc Milon invests in bespoke robots that are programed to remove weeds from vineyards, you know the idea is about to hit a tipping point.
In June, the company teamed up with Naio Technologies in an experiment at Clerc Milon using Ted, a robot that rivals R2D2 for cuteness. Philippe Dhalluin, managing director of the châteaux, is convinced robots are part of a “green” future. (Nearby first-growth Château Latour still relies on retro vineyard horses.)
Another example of wine A.I. is the VineScout, which will be used in Portugal at Symington Family Estates’ vineyards during the 2018 season to check vine vitals such as leaf temperatures. Basic models ($12,000 to $15,000) are scheduled to go commercial in 2019.
One homegrown A.I. even saved $10 million worth of wine during the Napa’s October fires.
Finally, I also have a host of questions for 2018: Now that cannabis is legal in California, will wine drinkers ditch pinot for pot? Will Amazon’s Alexa become the new wine recommendation guru? When will the #MeToo movement hit the wine industry? Will Sydney, Australia, really become the world’s largest urban vineyard?
Watch for my reports on these and other vexing vino questions, coming soon.
Oh, and whatever we do, please let’s not let blue wine happen, OK?