Venerable Value Trove or Flash in the Pan?


whiplash wine marketUS consumers just might develop whiplash keeping up with declarations of new regional sources for quality wine values.  Rewind the last ten years and value arrows have stopped on Spain, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Languedoc, Beaujolais, Chile, Loire, and more.  And, there appears to be no let-up.

Trying to make sense of the shifting landscape, each new pronouncement of dominance in the global value segment falls neatly into one of these buckets:

1) Older viticultural areas benefitting from investment and improved winemaking techniques suiting global market style and demand like France’s Languedoc and its tighter appelations including Minervois and Corbières; or parts of Spain like Bierzo where the Mencia grape is gaining in popularity

2) Traditionally strong and venerable winemaking regions mistakenly overlooked by the broader market, with bursts of value interest around exceptional vintages that produce higher than usual quality sans accompanying inflation, i.e. the Mosel Riesling vintage of 2001 or the white wines of Loire in 2002

3) Expanding investment and advancing winemaking skills in the new world; i.e., Australia, Chile, Argentina

Unfortunately,  most of these buckets spring leaks over time as consumers shift alliances in waves.

Its been unclear to me whether consumer tastes run ahead of the market or if market dynamics (oversupply, risingchickeneggprices, new regional entries) serve to shift preference.  Or, is it that US consumers fail to grasp nuances in geography and terroir across emergent but distant winemaking regions to develop enough appreciation for a lasting allegiance?

In the category of New World wonders, you don’t have to look too far beyond the rise and fall of Australia as the wine value poster child.  This all came back to me this week as I attended a dinner in Little Rock where we drank several bottles of the 2007 D’arenberg Laughing Magpie when half my senses surrendered to the alluring peppery, violet toned, licoriced tinged glass of blackberry jam while my remaining senses begged for austerity, varietal delineation, and less alcoholic heat.

After Australia unleashed a barrage of alcoholic, ripe Syrah on the US market at reasonable price points in comparison to skyrocketing Northern Rhone and small production US Syrah prices, the tide rose and fell quickly as the wines, which were never unanimously favored by aficionados, lost lustre and interest declined.  In July the New York Times covered Australia’s sliding fortunes:

Just a few years ago, Australia was being hailed as the great international success story of the wine business, challenging the dominance of France, Italy and Spain. From 1999 to 2007, foreign sales grew more than threefold, making Australia the world’s fourth-largest exporter….But even as its star appeared to be rising, the Australian wine industry was sliding, selling a greater volume of wine at increasingly lower prices….The industry is also facing increased competition from lower-cost rivals and changing consumer tastes. Last year, exports fell 9 percent by volume, the first such drop in a decade. Many vintners are hanging by a thread

Beaujolais seemed to experience a burst of attention in the historically high quality vintages of 2003 and 2005, pushing the mistakenly out-of-favor and inexpensive Gamay grape into the value limelight.  As vintage quality resumed a more normal pattern,  Beaujolais appears to have slipped quietly from the stage again and wines that offer great expression and terroir go overlooked.

Underscoring another missed value opportunity for wine drinkers that overlook the Loire, the Brooklyn Wine Guy references a story he heard about a top Burgundy producer favoring Muscadets over more predictable white wine choices:

Frédéric Mugnier makes some of the finest red wine in the world: he was asked what he drinks when he drinks white wine. Without hesitation he said “Muscadet.” It tickles me that this guy whose wines sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle, drinks $15 Muscadet.

There are many people who say that Muscadet is the world’s finest value in white wine. I am definitely one of those people. And Marc Ollivier at Domaine de la Pépière makes what I think is the finest value within Muscadet, his Clos des Briords.

wine_portugalHoward Hewitt who writes a newspaper column and blogs about wines at Grape Sense helped expand the shifting value landscape when he recently wrote in a Palate Press guest post called “Portugal’s Table Wines Emerge as Value Buy”:

When wine drinkers think of Portugal, it’s usually Port or cork. Touriga Nacional and Roupeiro don’t roll off the tongue like Merlot or Chardonnay. But the coastal European country is riding a surge of attention for its previously dismissed table wines…..The red and white selections are exploding in wine shops everywhere. Easy to find at price points under $15, Portugal’s bottlings deliver big flavors that surpass the “bang for the buck” value standard so many consumers are seeking.

For me the question remains whether Portugal, or for that matter any of the newly declared old or New World regions, can sustain quality and fair pricing over an extended term and cement itself in the class of France’s Southwest, Loire, and Beaujolais regions where quality, terroir, and value seem to be on lasting display.  That’s a tall order.