A Few Trends in the World of Wine: 2007 and 2008
However, regional losers far outnumber winners in climate change, as global warming has produced great difficulties in traditionally warmer climes, with regions such as the Rhône Valley, California, Australia, and much of Italy and Spain struggling to come up with solutions for the highly alcoholic wines that have been the result of surging sugar levels. A dozen years ago, wines in these regions seldom tipped the scales above 13.5% alcohol. Now alcohol levels above 15-16% are common, with the resulting wines’ complexity, balance, and elegance suffering. Today one of the fastest growing industries in the California wine country revolves around firms that lower these levels prior to bottling. One of the chief culprits behind today’s brain-numbing alcohol levels is the entrenched mantra of "physiological ripeness." This is the concept that soaring sugar levels and plunging acidities are unimportant for grapes in these regions (often because they can be "corrected" later through intensive intervention in the winemaking process), so long as the tannins in the grape skins, seeds, and stems are fully ripe. The end result of "physiological ripeness" is smoother tannins in the finished wines, but often at the cost of stunning alcohol levels, overripe and dulled flavors, and very heavy manipulation of the wines in the cellars. As a general rule of thumb, for those interested in drinking natural wines, steer clear of high alcohol levels.
Another major 2007 trend that will produce major repercussions in 2008 and beyond is the evolution of wine closures, with screwcaps, synthetic corks, and even glass closures continuing to make serious inroads into the cork market. Under-reported, but rather chilling in this context, is the alleged dramatic deficiencies in the scientific research behind screwcaps that pronounced these closures safe for wine in the first place. In short, some inner liners for screwcaps have proven to be carcinogenic, and virtually all screwcaps harm the underlying wine by causing permanent "reduction" within a couple of years of bottling. Simply put, "reduction" is a chemical process involving sulfur molecules in a wine which strips wines of freshness, depth of flavor and aroma, and often causes "off" tones redolent of rotting eggs. Unlike cork, screwcaps generally do not allow any oxygen at all into the sealed bottle, which causes this reduction. Expect to hear more about this in 2008, and in the interim, in my opinion it would be prudent to think seriously before consuming wines closed with screwcaps.
Corks did not fare a whole lot better in 2007, but some hope is on the horizon. Many wine collectors are only too aware of the premature oxidation problem that has swept through white Burgundy and white Bordeaux vintages since the mid-1990s. Most commentators now lay the blame on changes in cork manufacturing that occurred at this time, when the final bleaching process switched from a chlorine-based solution to peroxide to try to cut down on the incidence of "corked bottles." Peroxide is a strong oxidizing agent, and it seems clear that it has played a pivotal role in the premature oxidation problem. However, many Burgundy domaines who have been the most affected are now buying corks that are not washed in peroxide, and there is hope that, as 2008 dawns, this problem will finally be put behind us. The large inroads made by alternative closures has finally woken up the cork industry, and 2008 and beyond may witness a surge in natural cork quality that is long overdue.
John Gilman is the author of the bi-monthly wine newsletter View From the Cellar, dedicated to the discussion and analysis of maturing wines and the history of the world’s greatest wine estates.More.