Is This Really a Golden Age for Wine?

If so, where's the action?
Jan 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.

Collecting Aging Wine Opinion

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