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Wine Universe

An out-of-this-world guide to the wine universe.

The Sun | The Planets | The Oort Cloud | Galactic Superclusters | Gravitational Anomalies | Comets | Supernova | Mysterious InterStellar Radio Source | Mad Scientist | Dying, Dwarf and Falling Stars | Asteroid Belt | Flying Saucers | The Green Planet

The Sun

The American Wine Buyer
According to industry analysts, America will likely surpass France as the largest wine market in the world in the next two years. That’s partly because our population of drinking-age adults will increase to an estimated 184 million in 2010, and partly because wine consumption in both France and Italy is slipping. But it may also be that we’re truly becoming a nation of wine drinkers—wine consumption in the U.S. increased over 66 percent from 1993 to 2007.

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The Planets

(Proximity to the sun depicts popularity with U.S. wine buyers, as determined by the number of cases imported, excluding bulk wine)

USA
Almost 70 percent of the wine bought in America is made in America (and mostly in California). Napa Valley and Sonoma are the famous names, but new regions are also garnering acclaim, like Washington’s Red Mountain and Oregon’s Dundee Hills.

Wine to try

2006 The Four Graces Dundee Hills Pinot Gris ($18).

Italy
Americans may know Sangiovese-based Chiantis best (along with cult Super-Tuscans like Sassicaia), but lately, Italophiles are turning to northern Italy—Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino–Alto Adige—for some of the most refreshing white wines in the world.

Wine to try

2006 Bastianich Tocai Friulano ($15).

Australia
More than eight million cases of Yellow Tail per year—plus critically adored boutique bottlings—have made Australia the second-biggest exporter to the U.S. Yet intense Shiraz isn’t the country’s only popular wine. Its racy, dry Rieslings are among the world’s great seafood wines.

Wine to try

2007 Grant Burge Thorn Riesling ($25).

France
First-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy and tête de cuvée Champagne are all benchmarks by which the rest of the world’s wine is judged. But France also offers fantastic values in up-and-coming regions like Coteaux du Languedoc and Pic St-Loup.

Wine to try

2004 Domaine de Nizas Rouge ($17).

Chile
Chile made its name in the U.S. with quality bargain bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but the excitement right now focuses on cool-climate coastal wines—Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, from regions like the San Antonio and Leyda valleys.

Wine to try

2006 Amaral Sauvignon Blanc ($19).

Spain
Many of the world’s premier value reds are pouring out of Spain, from up-and-coming regions like Jumilla, Calatayud and La Mancha. These are powerful, rich wines from the country’s wealth of old-vine vineyards, made with grapes such as Monastrell, Garnacha and Tempranillo.

Wine to try

2006 Las Rocas Garnacha ($12).

Germany
In top restaurants, crisp, minerally Riesling has become a go-to wine. And it seems German winemakers have finally realized that releasing wines with labels that are not absolutely impossible to decipher might be a good way to entice Americans.

Wine to try

2006 Schloss Wallhausen Two Princes Riesling ($12).

Argentina
Argentina is practically defined by spicy, berry-rich Malbec. But it deserves to be better known for Torrontés, too, a variety that makes lovely, floral whites.

Wine to try

2006 Michele Torino Don David Torrontés ($16).

New Zealand
For most wine buyers, New Zealand means Sauvignon Blanc—peppery, grassy and in-your-face. Yet the country produces some of the New World’s best Pinot Noirs, and emerging areas like Hawkes Bay are terrific for intense, black-fruited Syrah.

Wine to try

2005 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah ($22).

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The Oort Cloud

(Wine-producing countries out beyond the nine largest exporters to the U.S.)

Similar to this vast, hazy cloud of six trillion icy objects floating far, far from the sun, there are a number of ambitious countries waiting for the gravitational pull of the U.S. wine market to draw them in. Among them are Austria, Portugal, South Africa and Greece.

Wine to try

2005 Quinta do Vale Meão Meandro ($24) from Portugal.

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Galactic Superclusters

(The biggest companies in the wine universe)

Constellation Brands
No wine producer is bigger than New York–based Constellation. With more than 300 brands and $932 million in sales each year, Constellation makes other wine goliaths look puny.

Wine to try

2005 Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($23).

Southern Wine & Spirits
The largest wine and spirits distributor in the country, Southern sells more than 5,000 brands and ships more than 70 million cases per year, with operations in nearly 30 states.

Wine to try

2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling ($9).

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Gravitational Anomalies

(Individuals with vast buying power)

Some wine buyers deal in bottles; some deal in thousands of cases:

  • Annette Alvarez-Peters of Costco is responsible for wine sales of more than $700 million each year.
  • Wilfred Wong of Beverages & More moves bottles through over 80 stores (and tastes over 8,000 wines each year).
  • Dex McCreary of Sam’s Club is doing his best to challenge Costco as the number one wine retailer in the U.S.

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Comets

(Bright young winemakers)

  • Thomas Rivers Brown has made his name as one of Napa Valley’s top Cabernet consultants. Star clients include Schrader Cellars.
  • Eben Sadie of South Africa’s Sadie Family Winery has received great critical acclaim for wines like his Palladius white, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and other varieties.
  • Ben Glaetzer’s brooding Amon-Ra Shiraz is one of the best in the Barossa, Australia’s greatest Shiraz region.

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Supernova

(A variety that has just exploded in popularity)

America can’t get enough Pinot Noir, so much so that there’s a scarcity of good Pinot fruit in California; some value-oriented labels have started sourcing from places as far afield as Corsica. The greatest regions, like Burgundy and Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, produce wines that truly express the grape’s ethereal allure.

Wine to try

2006 Hartford Court Fog Dance Pinot Noir ($45).

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Mysterious InterStellar Radio Source

(Influential if unlikely Internet wine authority)

Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV
Take a first-generation Russian immigrant (and maniacal New York Jets fan), have him turn his parents’ New Jersey liquor store into a wine mecca, and then let the guy get obsessed with everything Web 2.0 and start a kooky “Wine Library TV” Internet show. Unbelievably, 80,000 people a day watch Gary V.

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Mad Scientist

Clark Smith is without a doubt the go-to guy for futuristic wine science. Skeptics call him Dr. Frankenwine; winemakers who need his help—well, they just call him. His patented reverse-osmosis technology can lower a wine’s alcohol level, remove volatile acidity and even filter out smoky aromas resulting from forest fires near vineyards. Now he’s concentrating on wine nutraceuticals (health supplements containing the essences of disease-fighting foods), as well as his own WineSmith label.

Wine to try

2005 WineSmith Albariño ($17).

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Dying, Dwarf and Falling Stars

(Trends on the wane)

Bordeaux Futures
In the past, wine lovers have often paid two years in advance to reserve top Bordeaux bottlings. Now, with the weak 2006 and 2007 vintages ahead, waiting is a far wiser idea.

Critter Labels
The wine market is saturated with happy penguins and lively leopards. The new trend is “adventure” labels, such as Mad Housewife Chardonnay (odd adventure, true).

High-Alcohol Reds
Massive reds weighing in at a whopping 16 or 17 percent alcohol are experiencing a backlash from diners who don’t want to get wiped out by one glass of wine.

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Asteroid Belt

(Oddball, indigenous grape varieties)

Hip young sommeliers are obsessed with unusual local varieties, like floral Mencía from Spain’s up-and-coming Bierzo region and luscious Petite Arvine from Italy’s tiny Valle d’Aosta.

Wine to try

2006 Les Crêtes Petite Arvine ($46).

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Flying Saucers

(Mysteriously fast-moving cult wines)

People used to wait for a wine to score 99 points before stampeding to buy it. Now the Internet, and particularly the bulletin board on erobertparker.com, means that a frenzy can happen even faster. Wealthy wine fanatics fought to get onto Ovid Vineyards’ mailing list at least two years before the winery’s first release. That’s thanks to a lineup of wine heavyweights like star vineyard manager David Abreu, star winemaker Andy Erickson and superstar winemaking consultant Michel Rolland, all focusing on a tiny vineyard perched close to cult Cabernet producer Dalle Valle Vineyards on Napa Valley’s Pritchard Hill.

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The Green Planet

(Eco-friendly trends)

More and more wine producers around the world are going organic and even biodynamic (a spiritual form of organic farming created by philosopher–wing nut Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s). Other eco-friendly winery initiatives include renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal and wind power; participating in land-preservation programs; and even farming with biofuel-run tractors.

Wine to try

2006 Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence ($17).

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Published October 2008
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