Where's the Excitement Right Now?

All righty, it's 2016. The future has arrived
Where's the Excitement Right Now?
Matt Kramer spotlights the regions to watch in 2016, from Australia to Oregon to Champagne. (Jon Moe)
Jan 5, 2016

A new year, like the first day of school, has a freshly scrubbed, all-is-possible glow of expectation. The empty bottles behind us, literally and figuratively, are yesterday's news. What lies ahead? What's on the jump in 2016?

Actually, I can't answer those questions for you. Why not? Because the answers depend upon where your interests lie. For example:

Australia and New Zealand. If you're in the wine-importing business, the action in 2016 surely lies in renewed market possibilities with Australia and New Zealand wines.

The reason is simple: One Aussie dollar bought 82 U.S. cents at the beginning of 2015; it then dropped to a low of 69 cents, and now hovers around 73 cents. To put that in perspective, in 2011 the Aussie dollar was worth US$1.09. The New Zealand dollar charts a similar trajectory, if not quite as extreme as Australia's.

Obviously, if you're an American importer of wines, this now-favorable exchange rate is a game-changer. And if you're an Aussie or Kiwi exporter, you're able to get back in the American game.

Not least, if you're a fancier of wines from Down Under (or are simply curious about them), then 2016 will be your year. What should you seek out? Allow me to offer the 15-second Down Under tip sheet:

In Australia look for wines from Clare Valley (Riesling, Shiraz), Margaret River (Chardonnay, Cabernet blends), Mornington Peninsula (Pinot Noir), Tasmania (sparkling wines) and Hunter Valley (Sémillon, Shiraz).

In New Zealand look for Central Otago (Pinot Noir), Canterbury (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay), Marlborough (Sauvignon Blanc), Martinborough (Pinot Noir) and Hawke's Bay (Syrah, Cabernet blends).

Inevitably, there will be a range of qualities in each zone. But I'll say this much: The overall standard in all the regions cited is remarkably high thanks to either a cohesive collection of high-minded producers, the consistency available due to a relatively small growing area, or an exceptional vocation of place for a particular grape variety. Or all three.

Grower Champagne. It's been coming and coming and … coming. The interest, nay, excitement, about small-producer grower Champagne has been building over several years now. You could be forgiven for thinking it's old news, at least in wine-savvy circles. Yet even the wine-savviest keep discovering new producers that often exceed in characterful quality or style a previous this-is-the-best-yet favorite.

Champagne is the new Burgundy. In the same way that Burgundy exploded with hundreds of estate-bottled grower wines, Champagne is now seeing a flowering of grower-produced wines that bypass the formerly invincible market domination of the famous Champagne shippers.

The results are a revelation of both place and sparkling wine possibilities, from ultra-austere zero-dosage Champagnes (no added sweetness before bottling which, it should be noted, is more possible now than it was decades ago thanks to today’s warmer growing seasons attributed to climate change) to radical revisions about the role of oxygen and oxidation in the maturation of the wine before bottling. Some are misses; many are hits. All are fascinating.

I can't help but think of the now-immortal line in the groundbreaking 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer—the film that definitively and forever ended the silent film era—when mega-star Al Jolson declared, "Wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" Ditto for the new Champagne revolution.

Oregon Pinot Noir. Here again, it seems like Oregon Pinot Noir has been a train forever pulling into the success station. But 2016 promises to be more than merely a breakout year. Rather, it will likely be the year when Oregon Pinot Noir institutionalizes itself on wine lists everywhere, as well as in many wine drinkers' private cellars.

The reasons are threefold: First, the latest vintage, 2015, proved to be both abundant and more than merely good, if variable, thanks to harvesttime rains. It came on the heels of yet another equally abundant vintage, 2014, which itself saw a significant increase in Pinot Noir production over 2013 and was nothing if not ripe, as it was the hottest year on record. So there's plenty of Pinot Noir in the pipeline.

Second, the overall quality of winemaking skill in Oregon has increased dramatically in the past decade. The odds of landing on a reasonably ripe-tasting, well-made, not excessively oaky Oregon Pinot Noir are far better today than ever before. Consistency has finally arrived.

Third is the prospect of the marketing and distribution impact of big players from afar, such as Burgundy producers Maison Joseph Drouhin, which has long carried the Oregon banner with its Domaine Drouhin Oregon estate, and the newly arrived Maison Louis Jadot. More potent yet is the new, sizable presence of California's Jackson Family Wines in the Willamette Valley.

Structurally, everything is in place for 2016: quantity in multiple-vintage depth, reliable quality and comprehensive professionalism in both winemaking and marketing.

Spain and Portugal. For all of Europe's seemingly bottomless resources for fine wine, I defy you to point to any area, including even Italy or France, that offers wine lovers a richer array of new wine accomplishments than Spain and Portugal.

It's ironic, in a way, because the economies of both Spain and Portugal are in bad shape, and their respective political situations are also shaky.

But fine wine, like starlight, comes to us from an earlier moment in time. The results of the ambitious investments of the 1990s and early 2000s in Spain and Portugal are only now reaching us.

Just as an experiment, I went to a good retail shop in San Francisco last week and scooped up a half-dozen different Mencía wines from the Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra districts in northwest Spain. My only criterion was price, with a cutoff of $25 (several were just $15). I knew none of the producers and cared nothing about vintage. Every bottle I tried was lovely; there wasn't a clinker in the bunch.

This is what makes Spain and Portugal so rewarding right now. We're seeing a flood of new producers from both nations, and I know my little wine shop experiment can be repeated by anyone just about anywhere with pretty much identical results across an array of wine districts on the Iberian peninsula.

If 2016 isn't the breakout year for these wines, especially Portugal’s, then it's nobody's fault but theirs as producers for not catching their rising marketing star and riding it hard, and also ours, as wine lovers, for not seeing its brilliance on our horizon. Really, these are original-tasting wines that are not to be missed in 2016.


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