It's a curious, and powerful, feature of fine wine that it constantly refers to the past. Like starlight, many of the wines we buy are already years old by the time they reach us. For example, we're only now tasting the 2010 vintage.
So the past is always present. Of course, it's not just a matter of vintages. We measure greatness—often inappropriately—in part by a wine's longevity. A wine that has either lasted decades or is presented to us as having such a capacity is esteemed. It's considered a marker of quality, never mind that an ability to age tells us surprisingly little about quality.
For example, many wines made from the Tempranillo grape can retain astonishing youthfulness for decades, yet only rarely do they transform into something truly complex and layered. The power of the past is such that the mythology about age and greatness is unshakable.
But it's not just about old vintages. The power of the past also lies in its reassurance. Traditional wines and winegrowing areas are seen as sure things.
This was brought home to me during a recent trip to China. Wine lovers there seemed to be interested mostly in renowned and lustrous wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. This is understandable, to be sure. All wine newbies want to taste the benchmarks that have been sanctified over centuries. Fair enough.
Yet it has to be said: Fine wine today is much more about the future than ever it was. The “future” used to be merely the upcoming new offering from Bordeaux or Burgundy. It was a static, known universe, where the tick of the clock was measured only in vintage differences.
That's now been swept away by a far broader vision of the "future." Today, the "future" means whole new countries, regions, districts and even heretofore-unknown grape varieties.
After I left China, I flew to New Zealand, where I was a speaker at a Pinot Noir conference. I've been to New Zealand numerous times; my first visit there was in 1974, when I hitchhiked around South Island for six weeks. (Full disclosure: I drank a lot more beer than I did wine. There wasn't much local wine back then—especially in South Island—and what was available wasn't very good.)
Anyway, I spent two weeks in New Zealand, most of that time on my own touring North Island and visiting wine producers. What I really saw (and tasted) was the future. For example, during the Pinot Noir conference, I tasted, like everyone else, hundreds of New Zealand Pinot Noirs. That in itself is astonishing when you think about it. Hundreds of New Zealand Pinot Noirs? The traditional "wine past" never had such a thing, or even imagined it.
While tasting through the array I came upon a producer I had never previously tasted or even heard of. Yet when I tasted their Pinot Noir I was bowled over: Ostler Vineyards "Caroline's" Pinot Noir struck me as a remarkable wine.
I managed to taste three vintages worth; the 2008, 2009 and 2010 and all shared the same—dare I say it?—Chambolle-Musigny-like qualities of mineral-scented perfuminess allied to a layered depth and dimensionality. Produced in the ultracool, limestone-rich Waitaki Valley in New Zealand's South Island, it was a revelation. Here was the future!
In the North Island, I came across the utterly different yet equally remarkable Pinot Noirs of Kusuda Wines, in the Martinborough district about 40 miles east of Wellington. Here again, I tasted sheer remarkableness. Owner-winemaker Hiroyuki Kusuda, born and raised in Japan and now residing in New Zealand, is obsessed with extreme berry selection. Kusuda brings in 50 Japanese pickers at harvest, and he described (and displayed photographs of) the most rigorous and extreme berry-sorting that I've ever heard of. The result? Suffice it to say that you can taste the difference. The future!
The list of producers such as these that I encounter in my travels and tastings is extensive. They're everywhere today. You find them in Argentina: Try the exquisite Malbecs from Mendel Wines, where winemaker Roberto de la Mota employs an exacting, multiphase harvesting regimen and a highly involved blending approach derived from his decades of experience making sparkling wines.
You find it in Napa Valley: Try Dana Estate, which is so committed to the particular needs of each of its three vineyards that each has its own vineyard-dedicated (and differently equipped) fermentation facility.
You find equally intriguing/thrilling/fascinating/profound/different wines and producers in Oregon, Ontario, seemingly everywhere in Italy, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Australia, France's Loire Valley (among numerous other places in that wine-rich nation) and in many parts of California.
The bottom line is this: If you really want to know fine wine, forget the past. The real action today lies in the future—which, paradoxically, is already here. But not everyone, quite understandably, knows it or (not quite as understandably) believes it.
Taste all of these "futures" and, as my friend and colleague the late Alexis Bespaloff used to say, "You'll agree for yourself."