I arrived in Las Vegas Saturday afternoon for Wine Spectator's Grand Tour. As I exited the airport and headed toward the taxi line, there wasn't a line. It was the first time I'd ever seen so few people arriving in Sin City.
My cab driver quickly assured me that indeed, Vegas was humming, but the streets were barren, with none of the usual heavy traffic leading to the casinos, which made me wonder how things were going in Vegas.
It turned out that the cabbie was right. The economic recovery is mending some of the wounds. The restaurants are recovering, with more diners and more wine sales—the industry is more upbeat than it was a year ago.
That night at the Grand Tour walk-around tasting at the Venetian Ballroom, a packed house of wine lovers went about their business sampling wines from the more than 200 wineries on hand.
From the delicate, fragrant Austrian Riesling I sampled early on—the 2006 Loimer Riesling Qualitätswein Trocken Kamptal Langenlois Steinmass—to the rich, layered Spanish and Argentine reds from the likes of Numanthia-Termes Toro Termes 2008 or Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Mendoza Nicasia Vineyard 2007, respectively, the transformation of wine styles was on full display.
For traditionalists, it's easy to dismiss modern-styled wines such as the Numanthia-Termes and Catena Zapata, with their emphasis on ripe fruit generosity and layers of flavors—"they're too similar in style, not representative of place." But people I talked to at the Grand Tour loved these wines and the vibrant acidities and brilliant flavors that come with them, just as much as those who formed a line in front of the table at Château Margaux love Old World traditionalism.
Of course, as the lines for the 2004 Margaux and 2005 Mouton-Rothschild indicated, Bordeaux first-growths are still big draws, but not as big as they used to be. No wonder. While these wines remain focal points of style and character in wine, with centuries of tradition, they are so expensive that most people don't even consider buying a bottle a possibility. Still, they're curious to find out what Margaux and Mouton taste like, and to compare them to the competition (of which there is plenty). The Grand Tour afforded guests the opportunity to compare the world's most expensive French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy to the best the New World has to offer. The 2008 Bergström Dundee Hills Bergström Vineyard from Oregon provided a perfect example of what Pinot Noir can do in the Pacific Northwest, seemingly a world away from the domaines of the Côte de Nuits. (For those in the New England area this week interested in witnessing the differences firsthand, the 2011 Wine Spectator Grand Tour makes its last stop this Thursday evening, May 19, in Boston.)
There are stark contrasts between Old World wines—those from Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy and Bordeaux and Burgundy in France—and those from countries that are experiencing revivals, such as Spain, or are simply emerging, such as the table wines of Portugal or the new darling Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs of New Zealand. Yet the New World Guard is gaining respect and recognition based on the quality of its wines despite its relative lack of history and traditions.
A young man pouring a wine at one of the Italian tables made me smile when he proclaimed that, while he loved the new styles of wines, he really loved Brettanomyces. There was plenty of brett on display at some of the Old World booths. It is one of those facets of wine that seems to divide most people, putting them squarely in either the love it or leave it camp. Whenever I taste bretty wines I'm reminded of how those wines were once hailed as having terroir, the taste of the earth. It took me long enough to figure out that wasn't the case. But we all travel our own path to understanding and enjoying wine.
Another obvious change in style on display: wines that emphasize clean fruit purity, supple textures and refined tannins. The days when winemakers talked about how their wines needed a decade of cellaring for the tannins to soften and to show their best has largely passed. Still, I met young wine drinkers sitting on caches of great wines in their cellars (and hoping privately that those wines' primes aren't passing them by).
I was once part of that crowd. I bought into the pitch that hard tannins would soften with time, but they don't. Wines die from the inside out. They dry from the inside out. I once believed cellaring wine guaranteed it would improve and taste better. But with today's wines, it rarely does. When I meet wine lovers who still hold onto those perceived truths, I realize they are clinging to the past, albeit perhaps a past that served them well, which is why they are perhaps less likely to buy into more modern styles. The points of difference between traditional and modern wines are startling, and it's playing right into the hands of New World winemakers when it comes to wooing the younger generation of wine drinkers: They don't have to do much other than pour their wines and let people decide—they don't have to sell a cellaring strategy.
Winemakers say it's still a tough market. Many complained about sluggish sales and worse, distributors or retailers who are late paying bills. Many winemakers are still wondering why there hasn't been a bigger shakeout of producers, something that has surprised me as well.
I departed Vegas early Sunday morning convinced that the economy—the wine economy particularly—is on the mend. It may be a slow train running, but it has pulled out of the station and I think it's on track. The shakeout will come from wines that simply are not that good, and if they don't sell, their prices will come down, further leveling the playing field and making room for those wines ready to step into the void.
John Wilen — Texas — May 17, 2011 8:24pm ET
Joshua Kates — Indiana — May 17, 2011 9:04pm ET
Fred Brown — Maryland — May 17, 2011 9:24pm ET
Greg Flanagan — Bethel CT — May 18, 2011 9:25am ET
Peter Vangsness — Springfield, MA — May 18, 2011 12:03pm ET
Scott Mitchell — Toronto, Ontario — May 18, 2011 2:16pm ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — May 19, 2011 12:27am ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — May 19, 2011 12:29am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions