First, the good news. Not since 1990 has the world enjoyed such a consistently promising vintage as it did in 2009. The châteaux owners of Bordeaux may be leading the field in the hype stakes — this will be the third “vintage of the century” in less than a decade — but they are not alone in giving 2009 a double thumbs-up. We may have to wait a while to drink the top red wines, but the 2009 whites are already starting to filter on to the market from the southern hemisphere.
Will there be any buyers for these wines, however great? Champagne and Chianti are just two regions to have been hit by falling demand. For anyone with a little money to spare, there will be a lot of bargains next year. The supermarkets are determined to keep prices low — they’re still selling three bottles for £10, against all economic logic, and will go on doing so even when VAT returns to 17.5% — and there will be no shortage of producers who are desperate to supply them. Independent wine merchants are having a tough time of it, too, so expect some very competitive January sales, especially if Christmas is a flop. At least they should be able to sell some 2009 Bordeaux reds as futures, which may save a few businesses.
As ever, I am worried about where artificially low prices will take us. I’ve never known such bleak times in the wine business, with thousands of wineries facing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Threshers, which went into administration last month, looks unlikely to find a buyer, which means that wine will virtually disappear from the high street in 2010. Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Majestic, Oddbins and, to a lesser extent, Sainsbury’s are still selling some brilliant wines, but the likes of Tesco, Asda and Morrisons are compromising wine quality for commercial reasons. A big wine scandal cannot be far away.
The irony of all this is that the average quality of the world’s wine has never been better. I can’t think of a single country that isn’t making more exciting wine now than it was five years ago. You might not find much of it in the major supermarkets, but the independent wine scene is doing a better job than ever. It’s great to see people opening new shops and launching new websites in such difficult times.
If there’s one thing I would advise you to do in 2010, it’s trade up as much as your budget will allow. Remember that wine’s sweet spot in the UK lies somewhere between £5.99 and £9.99. Below that, it’s hard to find interesting bottles. But with £10 in your hand, you can still drink exciting wines. To make things easier, 14 of my top 30 wines of the year cost less than £9.99. Cue fanfare…
WINE-PRODUCING COUNTRY OF THE YEAR: SOUTH AFRICA
Celebrating its 350th anniversary as a wine-producing nation in 2009.
2009 Bellingham The Bernard Series Roussanne, Paarl (£9.99, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s) Big, bold, mealy, toasty, oak-aged Roussanne with notes of pears and nutmeg spice.
2007 Rustenberg Syrah, Stellenbosch (£12.99 each for two, 14.5%, Majestic) Smoky, powerful, aromatic Cape Syrah with voluptuous tannins and blackberry fruit.
MOST IMPROVED WINE-PRODUCING COUNTRY: NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand has been on an upward curve for the past decade, but with its world-class Syrahs and ever-improving Pinot Noir it deserves special praise this year.
2008 Saddle-back Pinot Noir, Central Otago (£14.99, 13.5%, selected branches of M&S) Light, but with lovely perfume and supple raspberry fruit.
2007 Craggy Range Block 14 Syrah, Hawke’s Bay (£16.99, or £13.59 by the mixed case, Oddbins) Craggy’s Syrahs are as good as anything in the New World — spice, pepper and depth.
ONE TO WATCH: AUSTRIA
Austria finally seems to be making a breakthrough in the high street as well as in top-end restaurants. Good to see a few reds alongside some excellent Grüner Veltliners.
2008 Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner Hefeabzug, Wachau (£13.99, 12%, Majestic) Elegant, minerally, biodynamic Grüner with citrus and white-pepper notes.
2006 Rabl Titan Zweigelt, Kamptal (£14.99. 13.3%, Waitrose Wine Direct) Light, refreshing, delicately oaked Zweigelt.
GRAPE VARIETY OF THE YEAR: RIESLING
The German stuff is as good as ever from vintages such as 2008 and 2007, but it is what is happening in the southern hemisphere that is raising Riesling’s profile.
2008 Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling, Great Southern (£7.09, 12%) Outstanding Western Australian Riesling — bone dry, lightly toasty and very crisp.
2008 Vidal Riesling, Marlborough (£8.99, or £7.19 by the mixed case, 12.5%, Oddbins) Off-dry in a Mosel-meets-Marlborough style, with appley, sweet and sour flavours.
WINERY OF THE YEAR: TIM ADAMS
Tim Adams has been making a brilliant, yet commendably well-priced range of wines in the Clare Valley since the mid-80s. The quality is consistently great.
2008 Tim Adams Semillon, Clare Valley (£9.99, 12.9%, Tesco) Youthful, oaky and restrained, but with lovely honeysuckle and herbal complexity.
2006 Tim Adams The Aberfeldy, Clare Valley (£25.99, 14.9%, selected branches of Tesco) Brilliant, old-vine Shiraz with masses of minty, spicy, plummy, oak-saturated power.
WINEMAKER OF THE YEAR: MARC KENT
If the mark of a great winemaker is being able to cater for different consumers, then Marc Kent delivers with great-value Porcupine Ridge and boutique Boekenhoutskloof.
2008 Porcupine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region (£6.99, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s)Classic Cape Cab at a good price, with firm tannins and sweet bramble and cassis fruit.
2008 Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block, Western Cape (£16.99, 14.5%, www.waitrosewine.com; or £15.99 by the mixed case, Oddbins)Exotic, Syrah-based blend showing spice, blackberry fruit and lush tannins.
WINE REGION OF THE YEAR: THE RHôNE VALLEY
I’ve been drinking the stellar southern Rhône 2007s with enormous pleasure all year. Buy them while you can, because 2008 was a less reliable vintage.
2007 Charmasson Côtes du Rhône Villages, Plan de Dieu (£5.99 each for two, 14%, Majestic) Aromatic, unoaked Grenache/Syrah blend with black olive and rosemary notes.
2007 André Brunel, Côtes du Rhône (£8.99, 13.5%, www.virginwines.com) Very serious, Grenache-based blend with plum, raspberry and liquorice flavours.
After a slight wobble over the past couple of years, Waitrose came storming back in the second half of 2009 with some delicious new listings.
2008 Domaine Ventenac Chenin/Colombard, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Lastours (£6.99, 12.2%) Tasty, grapefruity, tangy, unoaked white blend from a domaine near Carcassonne.
2007 Yalumba Hand-Picked Tempranillo/Grenache/ Viognier, Barossa Valley (£9.99, 13.5%) Innovative red/white blend from Yalumba: textured and savoury with soft red fruits.
HIGH-STREET CHAIN: MAJESTIC
Oddbins is mounting a challenge in the high street at last, but Majestic still has the best range. The good news is that you only have to buy six bottles at a time now.
2008 Vernaccia di San Gimignano, A Passoni (£7.99 each for two, 12.5%) Fresh, citrus fruit and green olive-scented white made from an under-rated grape.
2007 Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz, Barossa Valley (£19 each for two, 15.5%) Not subtle, but what a wine — coconut, sweet black fruits and fine-grained tannins.
MAIL-ORDER WINE MERCHANT: THE WINE SOCIETY
The mail-order scene is increasingly competitive, with Virgin, Laithwaites and various independents all in the frame, but this go-ahead co-op is still the place to shop (www.thewinesociety.com).
2007 Vieux Château Guibert, Graves Blanc (£10.95, 12.5%) A herbal, toasty blend of Semillon and Sauvignon that has considerable poise and depth.
2004 Bohórquez, Ribera del Duero (£17.95, 14%) Proper Ribera: fresh and refined with subtle oak and good ageing potential.
INDEPENDENT WINE MERCHANT: BERRY BROTHERS
The traditional St James’s image is a facade these days: Berry Brothers has embraced the modern world with gusto. Its wine range is one of the best in the world, too. (www.bbr.com)
2007 Crozes-Hermitage, Cuvée Les Galets, Domaine des Hauts Chassis (£15.95, 13%) A classic northern Rhône Syrah at a good price — smoky, elegant and refined.
2001 Viña Arana Reserva, La Rioja Alta (£16.45, 13%) Classic, old-fashioned Rioja — soft and fragrant with sweet oak and gamey flavours.
BEST WINES UNDER £5
2009 Asda South African Pinotage, Spier (£3.78, 14%) Shows Pinotage’s better side: gluggable raspberry fruit and a hint of liquorice.
2008 Old Man Creek Chardonnay, New South Wales (£4.99, 13%, Marks & Spencer)Brilliant-value Aussie Chardonnay — peach and citrus fruit with a hint of oak.
BEST WINES UNDER £10
2008 Mas de Bressades Costières de Nimes, Cuvée Tradition Blanc (£8.99 or £7.19 by the mixed case, 13%, Oddbins) Complex, creamy, southern Rhône blend based on Roussanne and Grenache.
2007 Trio Reserva Merlot, Rapel (£7.99, 14%, The Co-op, Booths) Carmenère-influenced Merlot blend from Chile — fleshy and ripe with a green-pepper undertone.
BEST WINES UNDER £20
Fonseca Crusted Port (£13.99 each for two, Majestic) A traditional Port with a slight deposit, showing fiery, sweet and savoury flavours.
Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs Champagne (£15, 12%) A consistent award-winner on the show circuit, at a show-stopping price for a bubbly.
BEST WINES OVER £20
2002 Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Cru, Clos de la Mouchère, Domaine Jean Boillot (£46, 13.5%, The Wine Society) Feel like splashing out this Christmas? This is a mind-blowing white Burgundy.
2006 Trapiche Viña Villafane Single Vineyard Malbec, Mendoza (£22, 14.5%, Laithwaites)Despite the hefty bottle, this is stunning — big and robust, yet refined, too.★
Originally published in The Observer