Seven ways the wine world will change in 2018

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 10, 2018.

Vineyards in Rioja, in Basque Country, Spain. Photo by The Image Bank

D’Arenberg Cube. Photo by D’Arenberg

Climate change is affecting so much: The fear of it has encouraged winemakers to adopt better eco-vino vineyard practices and experiment with new grape varieties. Photo by Moment RF

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Most of the wine world was happy to wave goodbye to 2017, a year of vine-killing frosts, hail, drought and destructive wildfires in regions from California, to Chile, to Europe. The year 2018 is not only a relief; it’s exciting, because it is full of promise, with new experimentation, exploration, and the continuing of trends that we enjoyed from last year.  

The rosé juggernaut, for example, keeps crushing it. With US sales up 57% in dollars, our must-drink-pink obsession continues and is even fuelling interest in rosé cider and pink gin. Also, thanks to adventurous younger drinkers thirsty for novelty and affordability, enthusiasm for obscure native grapes, especially from Italy, is still growing fast. Here’s what I see in my crystal glass for 2018.

 

Big bottles will be huge

The popularity of wine in magnums — the equivalent of a double bottle — and other large formats seems to track the stock market; when stocks are up, so is big bottle demand. In the UK, wine retailer Majestic reported a 378% increase in sales of affordable supersize bottles last year, at its 200-plus stores.

The trend started with oversize bottles of rosé poured in Saint-Tropez, France, and in 2017, Aldi supermarkets launched inexpensive jeroboams (four bottles) of prosecco in the UK for Christmas.

For those craving luxury wines, Domaine Clarence Dillon (which includes first-growth Château Haut Brion) recently launched an online retail site dedicated to sourcing and selling large formats of everything from Beaujolais to champagne and whisky. A Balthazar (16 bottles) of the polished, syrah-based 2014 Domaine de Montcalmès from the Languedoc is €479 (RM2,266); for €15,600, you can have a Salmanazar (12 bottles) of the truly fabulous 2005 Château Haut Brion.  

However, don’t think too big: the outlandish Melchizedek of Champagne, the equivalent of 40 bottles of fizz, has been known to spontaneously explode.

 

The year’s hotspot will be Spain

 So many regions are poised for attention; it’s hard to single out only one. The Republic of Georgia has captured the natural wine crowd’s hearts; Madeira is on the verge of a moment; Croatia beckons; England is already there; and I’ve been impressed by new avant-garde wines from cool areas of Australia and Chile.

However, I’m predicting we are about to rediscover Spain. Popular culture evidence? Rachel Lindsay, romance reality TV series The Bachelorette’s star, took her final suitors to “romantic” Rioja last summer for a wine-tasting in old caves, grape stomping, and a helicopter tour of vineyards.

Seriously, though, a new generation of vignerons is bringing change to every region there, including classic Rioja, and creating reds and whites from such places as Ribeira Sacra and the Gredos mountains with character and quality at bargain prices.

 

Climate change is heating up

Climate change is affecting so much: The fear of it has encouraged winemakers to adopt better eco-vino vineyard practices and experiment with new grape varieties. Rising temperatures are also drastically rejiggering wine geography. The steady warming of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, for example, may turn the area into a new source of top pinot noir. Until recently, farmers had little luck growing the grape. Now there are 33 wineries, and more are on the way. Even the state of Maine is hosting a class this month for farmers wanting to grow wine grapes. Is Newfoundland next?

 

You’ll be buying more wine online

Despite its convenience and choices, online wine shopping in the US lags way behind China. However, expect a boost in 2018. Primary barriers to growth have been the high cost of shipping and the US’ complicated alcohol regulations. Consumers in 44 states can have wine from any US wineries delivered directly to their doors, but only those in about 14 states can have wine purchases shipped directly from out-of-state retailers, meaning they can’t buy many imported wines.  

Enter Heini Zachariassen, wine app Vivino founder and chief executive officer. In December, he launched Vivino Premium, aiming to be the Amazon Prime for wine. A US$47 (RM188.47) annual membership fee gives you free shipping for an amazing selection of wines, even first growths, shipped legally because Vivino partners with a network of local wine shops. A one-month free trial is even available.

JD.com, China’s second-biggest e-commerce company, plans to capture luxury online wine shoppers there with ultra-premium delivery service. Couriers wearing suits and white gloves had been delivering watches and jewellery; the expansion to wine started last month.

 

The fizz sector will keep broadening

Bubbly is still bursting old boundaries, as I predicted last year, and prosecco is still grabbing buzz. Because of a poor harvest, prices will go up. Look for France’s well-priced crémants from Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, and the Jura to make a splash this year.

The latest luxury sparkler is the new upscale Spanish Cava. Major champagne houses are pushing more single-vineyard bottles and fabulous extra-aged fizz — here’s looking at you, Cristal Vinotheque. Also, please, let’s have more neighbourhood champagne bars in 2018.

 

The ‘luxury experience’ way to taste wine

The crowded winery-tasting room is now totally passé. The new way to sample vino is all about special experiences and settings — say, while staying at a posh Bordeaux chateau or right after picking grapes in Burgundy, or after spear-fishing in New Zealand. I will be excited to visit the recently opened giant glass Cube in an Australian vineyard billed as an Alternate Realities Museum.

Naturally, Napa is all-in on the idea. A handful of swanky reservation-please salons with comfortable leather sofas, chandeliers, art-to-buy on the walls, and playlists of oh-so-hip music opened in downtown Napa last year. The top spots so far are Brown Estate, Acumen, Blackbird, and Ackerman’s Aviary.

 

The rise of robots in the poshest vineyards

When the Rothschild family of Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Clerc Milon invests in bespoke robots to remove weeds from vineyards, you know the idea is about to hit a tipping point.

In June, the company teamed up with Naio Technologies in an experiment at Clerc Milon using Ted, a robot that rivals R2D2 for cuteness. The châteaux’s managing director Philippe Dhalluin is convinced robots are part of a “green” future. (Nearby, first-growth Château Latour still relies on retro vineyard horses.)

Another example of wine artificial intelligence (AI) is the VineScout, to be used in Portugal at Symington Family Estates’ vineyards during the 2018 season to check vine vitals, such as leaf temperatures. Basic models at US$12,000 to US$15,000 are scheduled to go commercial in 2019. A home-grown AI even saved US$10 million worth of wine during Napa’s October fires.

 

Questions remain

I have questions for 2018: Now that cannabis is legal in California, will wine drinkers ditch pinot for pot? Will Amazon’s Alexa become the new wine recommendation guru? When will the #MeToo movement hit the wine industry? Will Sydney, Australia, really become the world’s largest urban vineyard?

Look out for my reports on these and other vexing vino questions, coming soon. Oh, and whatever we do, please let’s not let blue wine happen, OK? — Bloomberg