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Drinking Out Loud

Is This Really a Golden Age for Wine?

If so, where's the action?

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 22, 2013

We've all heard it said—many of us have probably said it ourselves—that we're living in a Golden Age for fine wine. But is it true?

I'd say that, yes, it is true—up to a point. It is a Golden Age for fine wine. But not for every producer, and it's not everywhere, either. And that, in turn, is why not everyone gets in on the golden deal merely by showing up with a credit card. You've got to know where to look.

For example, this is not really a golden era for Napa Valley. Oh sure, it's golden in the financial sense. Don't cry for Napa's Evitas. They're doing just fine, thank you.

But Napa's golden moment is now past. It occurred back in the 1980s. That was when you saw and felt and tasted an electrifying excitement. New wineries seemingly emerged every day. New concepts in winemaking were explored, exalted and then sometimes discarded, all in the name of a continuing revolution—and revelation.

Could you say the same about Napa Valley today? I don't think so. It's eased into a comfortable middle age, a little thick around the middle and disinclined, understandably so, to risk its hard-earned gains. So if you're looking for the fabled Golden Age, Napa is not where you should be searching. It's more of a Sure Thing, like a utility stock.

The same may be said about Bordeaux. The highly profitable (and highly predictable) classed-growths are no more adventurous than a Disneyland Jungle Ride. The rest of Bordeaux, for its part, is either comatose or paralyzed, take your pick. Bordeaux is not going to steal the old Pontiac slogan "We Build Excitement" any time soon. For most of Bordeaux, it's now more of a Tin Age. So don't look for any glitter there either.

All righty then, where is the vaunted Golden Age action? And what makes it so?

A Golden Age is a kind of magic moment when a region or a district comes alive with a newfound sense of possibility. It's a "brass ring" moment, when everybody on the merry-go-round—owners, winemakers and wine lovers—gleefully tries to grab the brass ring of both promise and achievement. Far from playing it safe, these same participants are seriously playful. They take chances. And when those risks succeed, we see a new vision of wine goodness that we had never previously witnessed. That's a Golden Age. (We're seeing just this sort of excitement and adventurousness with coffee and craft beers, for example.)

Various stages of this very exciting process in wine are playing out in numerous places worldwide. For example, it's fully in place today in Burgundy's Côte d'Or. Collectively, the red Burgundies (Pinot Noirs) being made today are as fine and authentic and brimming with beautifully crafted goodness as ever in living memory.

Improbably, given the difficulty of securing land and good wine sources in this famously sub-divided area, we're seeing a renaissance of small new producers. A good number of these are foreigners. They are Burgundy-besotted Americans and Canadians, especially, who believe in Burgundy's ancient vision of terroir-driven wine beauty. They are arm in arm with a growing cadre of deeply committed Burgundian winemakers, many of them young and passionate.

A Golden Age is now fully in force in the Côte d'Or. You should be buying the village-level and less-expensive premiers crus from these ever-more exacting and rigorous producers.

Where else? While on the subject of Pinot Noir, I'd also look at what's happening in three more zones now glowing golden: Oregon's Willamette Valley, New Zealand's Central Otago and Australia's cool-climate Mornington Peninsula.

All three satisfy the Golden Age prerequisites: an abundance of adventurous producers, a willingness to pursue ever-more rigorous grapegrowing and winemaking practices and, not least, a new level of accomplishment that proves they're on the right track.

All three locales are today creating the finest wines they've yet offered, Pinot Noirs that are not merely pat-on-the-head good, but closer to Satchel Paige’s famous admonition, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." All three are gaining mighty fast.

The same may be said of yet other areas for yet other sorts of wines.

Canada's Ontario district is acquiring critical mass, i.e., enough producers, vineyards, vintages and winemaking experience to be on the verge of another order of success.

The Beaujolais region is (finally) rousing itself from the narcotic stupor of once-easy money from Beaujolais nouveau and is returning to crafting substantial, dimensional "real" Beaujolais. It's not a Golden Age yet for them, but it's coming.

And there's yet more. Look closely at Portugal in general and the table wines of the Douro zone in particular. Here again, it's not yet a Golden Age for them. But it soon will be. Ditto for various not-quite-heralded parts of Spain, including regions such as Galicia (look especially at the Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo districts) and the likes of the Campo de Borja, Navarra and Toro zones.

Not least, there's France's vast Loire Valley. A Golden Age is very nearly upon this region, if not necessarily everywhere at once—it's a huge, varied area, after all.

But can anyone doubt the sense of renewal and commitment from an ever-larger number of young producers popping up in many of the Loire's dozens of districts? Personally, I look assiduously at the Loire Valley for my own cellar, as the quality-to-price ratio is as good as anywhere in the world.

So, yes, it is a Golden Age for fine wine. Can you doubt that it's so? Surely there are yet more nominees. For example, is it now a Golden Age for Argentina? Or for Piedmont's Barolo and Barbaresco districts? Or for grower Champagne? How about Hungary? What about Zinfandel? The list is … yours.

Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  January 22, 2013 12:07pm ET
Matt, I would argue that Rioja is reaching it's "golden age". Sure, quality wine has been coming out of Rioja for over a century, but I think that the increased diversity in winemaking philosophies is the key to helping it get there. On the one hand, we have the traditionalists, still ageing their wines for a decade or more before bottling. You have the modernists, who are aiming to produce wines for the "21st century". You also have those who are trying to blend both the modern and the traditional, from field blends containing indigenous varietals to even a couple young winemakers attempting to make sparkling and dessert wines, I think we are less than a decade from the regions true golden age. After all, diversity is the main source of excitement...at least for me.
David Holstrom
Portland Oregon —  January 22, 2013 2:37pm ET
I have no idea what a wine "Golden Age" is.

Is it when the wine is very well made or is it when wine writers tire of what they are currently doing and turn their attention to the next shiny bright object?

It strikes me as facile and glib to dismiss entire regions of the wine world in a sentence or two. And it is just as inaccurate to heap (often unwarranted)praise on others simply because they are in a currently fashionable area.

My experience is that there are producers that make exciting wines in nearly every wine region - even those that have been dismissed and written off by wine writers and gatekeepers".

I taste just as much mediocre, unexciting wine from Oregon, Navarra and the Côte d'Or as I do from Napa and Bordeaux. But when you start talking about individual producers it is a different story.
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  January 22, 2013 4:04pm ET
If the vine disease Esca turns out to be as devastating as some people believe it is going to be in Burgundy and the Rhone (I would say that it is a Golden Age for the Rhone with 2007, 2009 and 2010s all being extraordinary), it may become a Golden age for other regions where Pinot Noir flourishes sooner rather than later!
Have you watched the amazing new video "A Year in Burgundy"?
If not, you should!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 22, 2013 4:59pm ET
Matt,

I don't care if Beaujolais is in a Platinum era, there's just something about those wines (is it the carbonic maceration?) that has never agreed with me. I've tasted some of the highest-rated ones, some with a few years of age (never drank a nouveau), and still was left nonplussed. If WS reported that the entire region was salted with nuclear waste I wouldn't shed a tear.

I think you left out one region: Paso Robles. Some of the most exciting experiments in varietals, aging and vessels (concrete esp) are happening right here in California. I feel fortunate and am ever grateful that I live just a few hours from this glorious vintners' paradise, the real inflection point on my wine map almost 13 years ago.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  January 22, 2013 7:18pm ET
Today's golden age is "THE CONSUMER". Never before have so many cared so much about what they drink. This will be the driving force to drive quality up and up, and (should I say) create a market for GOLDEN WINES.
Ed Frankoski
Huntington, NY —  January 22, 2013 9:36pm ET
Matt,

You asked where the action is? Well, the Golden Age of Wine is on my dinner table and in my cellar. Facilitated by my computer, I read scores of tasting reveiws and instantly purchase inexpensive fine wines with just a "click." They come to me from around the world in a matter of days. I have the ability to experience outstanding bottlings from highly rated vintages and then review my tasting notes comparing "les grognards de vin" with some of those new upstarts you mentioned. So many newer entries have that "edge" you have mentioned. Yes, the Golden Age of Wine rests with cost conscious consumers who are coming up the learning curve at an ever amazing rate. My personal mantra is: Over 90, Under $20. It's yielding very tasty rewards. Cheers!
David Rapoport
CA —  January 23, 2013 9:30am ET
West Sonoma Coast
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  January 23, 2013 10:03am ET
Matt,

What Ed said!!

We have met the Golden Age, and it is US! WS has played an important role in my purchasing and enjoyment of many wines, and saved me from some real mistakes!
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  January 23, 2013 10:34am ET
I think you need to visit Healdsburg (again) soon..

There are so many new wineries popping up making all kinds of interesting things.

And it's accelerating.

Admittedly we have three (or four if you count Sonoma Coast) AVA's converging here, but it's the little guys who you meet all over town, each one with something fun & new going on.

Eric-
Roadhouse Winery
Flavio Henrique Silva
São Carlos, SP, Brazil —  January 23, 2013 3:47pm ET
Excellent article, Matt!
In my opinion, people should also heed the Chilean Sauvignon blanc and Syrah. They are getting better and better.
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI USA —  January 24, 2013 10:44am ET
Nicely turned. There is a huge danger in being successful, you might start to become careful - don't make mistakes, play it safe and that may be why so many of the wines that excite us are coming from places we hadn't heard of or had forgotten about or had written off completely.

How about the Rhone varietals from the Central Coast and the same being sourced from Amador, Lake, El Dorado counties at "high" altitude. I think that I am seeing fresh takes on old ideas and I am loving the results.
Noah Sevillia
Santa Cruz, California —  January 24, 2013 3:45pm ET
What Matt describes as a "Golden Age" sounds more like a "Spring" to me. It's all semantics I suppose but I would argue that Napa is in the midst of a Golden Age and the other regions Matt pointed out are in a Spring.
The question is whether the Spring will surge into a Golden Age. Craft beer is in the midst of a Spring in America. When considerably more people trade their macro beer for the craft beer will that market see a Golden Age.
jeff lorton
Carlton, Oregon —  January 24, 2013 6:33pm ET
Fun article Matt, and thought provoking by as evidenced by the many comments. Of the three glowing zones that you mentioned, I have the great luck to live right in the center of the action in one; the Willamette Valley.

Here in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA we truly are experiencing the start of a Golden Age. Not only are our signature single vineyard Pinot Noirs flourishing both locally and abroad but a gastronomic revolution is also taking place.

Regional charcuteries, cheese makers and artisan bakeries are popping up almost as fast as the new wine labels. So are truly great restaurants and lodgings.

In my home, Carlton, a charming berg of barely more than two thousand souls, one can dine on authentic provincial French cuisine, munch fresh pain au chocolat and baguette daily, sample savory spiced fruit preserves, spread the chèvre and savor a nationally celebrated bacon. The towns artisan brewery and cider makers help us wash it all down.

Other nearby towns like Mcminnville, Newberg and Dayton are also enjoying the golden life that our passionate winemakers incubate.

It is not wonder that the "Orgundian" lifestyle is attracting more and more people from across the country. Each weekend, in our small tasting room I meet people who either have or are moving to the Valley. Each seems to have a plan for pursuing some kind of wine or food related passion.

If this is what it means to live during a golden age. Hurrah!
Joe Balerdi
MIami Florida —  January 25, 2013 8:15am ET
Jumilla, Jumilla. You can beat the price for such enjoyable wine. The consumer is winning as we are now able to purchase wines from all over the world at very reasonable prices.
James Nokes
Chicago, IL —  January 25, 2013 3:29pm ET
Paso Robles for sure fits this bill. Young, creative, passionate risk takers that eschew tradition and create wine In a way that fits their personality.
Jonathan Weinrieb
Washington, DC —  January 29, 2013 4:08pm ET
Given its present QPR and string of unreal vintages, how this article does not mention the Rhone is incomprehensible.
Daniel Bleier
Austin, TX, USA —  January 31, 2013 2:23pm ET
What about Washington State wine? From WS's own data, this region produces the best quality to price ratio (having the lowest average price point for 90+ rated wine). I have shifted major buying attention to Washington in the last few years, enjoying the thrill of new producers (for me at least)making world class wine.
Wynona Tilton
Corvallis, OR —  February 6, 2013 2:45pm ET
Having lived in Oregon for 35 years, my husband and I have closely watched the growth of the wine industry in the state. We are smack dab in the middle of the Willamette Valley, which is perfect for traveling to any of the best wine producers in the state. There are indeed some wines that are not quite up to par, but in general, there are many fine wines here and in Washington (love my Quilceda Creek wine) that can easily compete with any wine region.

Places to stay- the Allison Inn and Spa is definitely the best.

Eric, we are headed to Healdsburg next month- any suggestions on which ones NOT to miss? Thanks!
Joel
Toronto Canada —  July 28, 2013 3:08pm ET
Nice piece, Matt. Growing up and living in Ontario it is warming to hear positive things about Ontario wine and producers. Terroir for many is truly a focus but the challenges are many. I have spoken with many producers and it (I am sure this is common anywhere) is a balance between yields, quality and simply being able to make a profit. It is make or break back-breaking work in many spots. Not being in it 'for the money' is a tough prospect but try a well crafted PEC Chardonnay or Niagara area Pinot Noir and it is an eye lightening experience. As many here have passionately pointed out I feel we live in a time where the golden age is simply access to amazing wine all over the planet. The Internet has truly created a community we should all tip out hats to.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  July 30, 2013 11:12pm ET
Oh dear, another "why aren't you people as smart as me" blog by Mr. Kramer trying desperately to tell us what to drink. How tedious. (Am I renewing soon?)

"Napa is not where YOU SHOULD (my emphasis) be searching" is perhaps only marginally useful to people who don't like Napa wine (and that's a broad net to cast over exclusions). Are you sure you're not talking exclusively of bargains, here Mr. Kramer? "YOU SHOULD (my emphasis) be buying the village-level and less-expensive (Côte d'Or) premiers crus..." Hmmm... yes, budget again. What if that style doesn't resonate with our own palates? YOU SHOULD make your point without dictating to people what their tastes ought to be, Mr. Kramer, because no one likes to be the target of condescension.

On the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree with David Holstrom's main points. It seems to me that by a preponderance of evidence that what Mr. Kramer considers "golden age" is "bargains". That's fine, but why not mention it? Is it somehow shameful to you?

To others who extol the virtues of Paso Robles, please, enjoy your hyped, overripe, volatile, unageable wine. I don't...

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