Here’s the Challenge

Tomorrow’s great-wine repertory—will it be composed altogether differently?
Here’s the Challenge
Is Portugal the next Italy? Is Meiomi the next Mouton?! Matt Kramer ponders the future. (Jon Moe)
May 2, 2017

Everyone likes pretending that they know—or at least can imagine—what the future will look like. Wine is no different.

But what is different with wine is that forecasting a future is new. Prior to the 1970s (probably it’s more like the '80s, but let’s be generous here), you could say that fine wine actually didn’t have a forward-imagining future. It only had a sanctified past, one that was endlessly recycled: the famous Bordeaux châteaus; Burgundy’s premiers and grands crus, a handful of prestige Champagnes, a few Port houses and, for the cognoscenti, a select group of German Rieslings from the Mosel and Rheingau. And that was about it.

What about Italian wines, you ask? Effectively, they didn’t exist. Yes, Italian wine sales surged in the 1970s. But they were confined to just five inexpensive Italian wine types, with Lambrusco (read Riunite) accounting for fully 50 percent or more of all Italian wine sales in America.

I will always remember a poignant comment made by the Piedmontese producer Bruno Ceretto, quoted by Burton Anderson in his landmark book, Vino (published in 1980, mind you): “I don’t want to outshine the French. I just want to sit down at the same table with them.”

Since then, the boundaries of the fine-wine world have expanded with an explosive effect, both in production and demand, the force of which we continue to feel even today. You know the roster of ambitious newcomers—again, both in production and consumers—as well as I, so I won’t bother to enumerate them. No one back in the 1970s or '80s could possibly have imagined either the extent of this change or its effect upon traditional, established producers.

Worth noting is that in some cases, such as Burgundy, this explosion of both production (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and intense consumer interest served to improve quality and help raise the wines’ prices.

In cases such as Bordeaux, explosive demand certainly expanded the worldwide market for the most famous names (to say nothing of increasing prices stratospherically), but a worldwide increase in Cabernet and Merlot production brought the balance of the vast, less-prestigious Bordeaux wine industry to its financial knees. The monopoly on market prestige that Bordeaux once enjoyed was permanently disrupted: Why buy second-rate Cabernet goods from non-illustrious Bordeaux producers when you could get demonstrably superior wines from California, Chile or Australia at the same or even lower prices?

All of which brings us to “The Challenge.” If the past is instructive—and I think it is—there’s no reason to believe that today’s great-wine repertory will inevitably comprise tomorrow’s great-wine performances.

The musical concept of “repertory” is a useful one here. The Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic Donal Henahan (1921–2012) defined it as well as anyone:

“By repertory must be meant a select body of works, popular and otherwise, that may be heard with regularity in the world’s concert halls, recital rooms or opera houses. These works have risen to the repertory level because they have been particularly admired by musicians, taken to the heart by a sizable public, or both.”

Of course, there’s no knowing for certain what will be “particularly admired” or “taken to the heart by a sizable public” 20 years from now. But one can guess or predict with at least plausible reasons.

Before I take a stab at that, however, allow me to note the one structural feature that will inevitably affect the choices of which wines will comprise tomorrow’s new great-wine repertory: the Millennial generation.

The tastes, preferences, ambitions and, not least, the economics, of the Millennial generation (i.e., those born between 1978 and 2000; there’s no definitive set of parameters) will more than anything else determine tomorrow’s great-wine repertory. They own the future; and as the largest demographic cohort in America, with some 76 million people now between the ages of 17 and 39, they own it in a really big way. Happily, they have a demonstrated interest in wine, so at least that’s not up in the air.

There’s also the wild card, it must be noted, of the effects of climate change: Is 20 years too short a time frame for pronounced wholesale effects in traditional wine zones? Opinions differ. But it may be a factor. And even if it is, one should never discount the ingenuity of producers in affected areas for contending with whatever changes may occur.

With that out of the way, what will the great-wine repertory look like in 20 years? Here are one observer’s predictions:

Napa Cabernet will still be king. It’s trendy in certain circles right now to suggest that once the Baby Boomers (and their fat wallets) shuffle off—either to nursing homes or worse—Napa Valley and its expensive wines will be yesterday’s wine news.

Myself, I don’t see it. Why not? Two reasons. The best Napa Cabs are world-class great. And there’s always a (high-priced) market for that. The other reason is that no place on earth does a better job of entertaining, feeding, housing and just plain inviting wine tourists than Napa Valley. Also it’s gorgeous. People will pay to play, in every sense.

Northern European red wines—Germany, Austria, Croatia, northernmost Italy—will be highly esteemed. Here, I think climate change will indeed play a role, along with the already-reviving red-wine ambitions of local (and often young) producers in those countries. Just which grape varieties will triumph, I don’t know. Likely Pinot Noir in Germany, to name but one.

Conventional solid corks will be, if not obsolete, at least passé. Today’s new generation of wine drinkers, from every anecdotal account I’ve heard, really doesn’t care about corks the way more traditionalist Baby Boomers do. Screwcaps? Fine. Agglomerate corks certified free of taint? Sure. Growlers? Bring 'em on! Wine packaging, including closures, will be much more creative and varied than today.

Natural wines, so-called, won’t exist. Why not? Because they will have been mainstreamed, that’s why. It will be normal for producers to create wines more or less along the lines that are deemed “natural” today. What will be different will be that these same wines will be universally well-made rather than today’s more hit-and-miss “naturalism.” It’s already happening, I believe.

Conversely, wines made using reverse osmosis and spinning cones to reduce alcohol will be ever more common and—here’s the kicker—producers will be forthright about it. Strange as it sounds to us today, it will be the new “natural.”

Here again, climate change may be the prime mover. If producers in now-warm and possibly-getting-hotter zones can demonstrate that judiciously removing alcohol with technology does not materially affect the remaining “naturalness” of the wine, then a new generation of tech-savvy and tech-accepting wine drinkers will say, “No problem.” The only requirement will be honesty.

So those are some predictions. Surely you have others. Will Chardonnay continue to rule among dry white wines? Will blends be the fine-wine future, variations on the already popular likes of Meiomi, Apothic Red and the like?

Will Portugal become the new Italy, what with all its many indigenous and often unique grape varieties? Not least, will the very definition of “privilege”—always a selling point in fine wine—change? Will tomorrow’s notion of privilege differ from today’s? Or is a sense of exclusivity, real or imagined, eternal?

Over to you.


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