Andrew Jefford looks back on the old year and forward to the new...
It’s been a turbulent year. Indeed I can’t recall any year where seemingly distant political developments, at both a national and international level, have influenced the personal equanimity of those I know to a greater extent than in 2018.
Wine, as one of the most internationally traded of all agricultural products, has been tossed about on the stormy seas along with the rest of us. Here are what seem to me to be the four main themes of the year. I’ve picked out a representative ‘wine of the year’ for each.
Trade wars are, by definition, bad for trade — as a whole, even though their justification may be to right trade imbalances and injustices. Most economic commentators, moreover, suggest that global trade is now so interlinked and interdependent that the unintended consequences of tariff barriers are likely to eclipse their ostensible target.
California’s winegrowers were always going to be losers from President Trump’s suite of tariffs aimed at China: poor timing, given the rate of growth in China’s wine market, and given that it has the potential to be the world’s leading wine-importing nation within a decade or two. China’s wine market already offered a profoundly uneven playing field, full of molehills and potholes, thanks to the trade deals and agreements struck by nations such as Chile, New Zealand, Australia and Georgia with the Beijing government. Add on the tariffs, and a bottle of California wine on sale in China might face levies of around 80 per cent compared to levies of around 32 per cent on Chilean wine and 38 per cent on Australian. The yuan’s recent fall in value against the dollar intensifies the pain, and has made China almost a no-hope market for US wine exporters at present.
In Europe, meanwhile, Brexit still has the potential to plunge Britain and its European partners into a de facto low-level trade war following a no-deal scenario, and the significant intra-EU trade in wine (the value of EU wine imports to the UK was £14 billion in 2016) would make it a serious casualty. Hence Majestic Wine’s £8 million pre-Brexit stockpile. China’s commerce minister Zhong Shan and Britain’s Liam Fox are said to be exploring the possibility of a “top-notch trade deal” post-Brexit — so long as Britain’s little navy doesn’t prove too irritating in the vast swathe of the South China Sea claimed by China. Here’s an example of the kind of wine we might be able to look forward to in place of spurned Bordeaux. I tasted it in Nanning in early September.
2018 has provided another avalanche of data concerning the threat from climate change, as well as a series of catastrophic events like the multiple wildfires and ‘firenados’ in California, Sweden and British Columbia. Japan experienced its hottest day ever (41.1˚C in July); the continent of Africa broke its own verifiable heat record, with a temperature of 51.3˚C in Algeria in June.
Climate sceptics have long clung to the notion that Antarctic sea ice was stable or growing in order to fight their insane rearguard action against the scientific consensus on global warming, yet this year NASA has presented data suggesting that ice in both West and East Antarctica is melting much faster than previously thought, with serious implications on projections for future sea-level changes.
Britain’s record-breaking summer was greeted with understandable enthusiasm by English and Welsh wine-growers, thought to be ‘climate-change winners’ – though the impacts of increasingly wild weather from Atlantic frontal systems seem likely to make successes variable from vintage to vintage, even if median temperatures continue to advance.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, however, that there will be many more wine losers than winners in a scenario of accelerating climate change. The most vulnerable vineyards in France to a rise in ocean sea levels, for example, would be the Bordeaux’s First Growths: Latour’s vineyards top out at 16 m, and sit next to Europe’s largest estuary. The ocean will bite here first; these vineyards will be impossible to defend.
I have written before about the possibility for catastrophic frosts to become a regular feature of future spring times in Europe, as budburst grows ever earlier while a disorderly polar vortex makes irruptions of freezing Arctic air over Europe’s vineyards in late March or April more likely: that was why Italy’s harvest dropped by 23 per cent in 2017, and France’s by 19 per cent. The utter chaos of Champagne’s 2017 growing season (hot winter weather, then frost, then a heat wave, then storms and hail, then more heat, then torrential harvest rain) makes the most likely outcome of climate change — wild weather — a fearsome prospect in itself.
Any other consolations, apart from some fine bottles of English sparkling wine in five year’s time? Well, how about Rheinhessen Syrah? My thanks to Stephan Reinhardt for sharing this treasured bottle from his cellar.
Nothing has had a greater impact on the lives of those in the world’s leading wine-producing and wine-consuming nations in 2018 than populist politics. Climate change may be the biggest threat to humanity and global species diversity, but populist politics poses the biggest threat to democratic order and the rule of law in democratic societies, and to global political stability, too. The freedom to grow grapes, to make and sell wine, and to earn the money required to drink wine, depends (as does every other thread in the social fabric) on the rule of law.
Wine might indeed be a refuge from politics — and we all need that at present. To assume, though, that the populist political crises unfolding in Britain, France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Belgium and the USA are ‘only politics’ would be a grave mistake. Populism is a direct consequence of the unchecked social media revolution, with its colossal power for self-radicalisation, for the mass dissemination of untruths by the malign, and the generation of hysteria and anger in place of reason and calm. It will worsen before we learn how to avoid poisoning our own minds with our tablets and telephones; and the economic consequences of formerly stable societies losing a measure of their sanity in this way will be significant.
What might be a ‘wine of reason’ in a mad world? Some countries, at least for the time being, seem to have been able to resist the evil spell of populism. Here is a fine historical wine from one of those, Canada.
We’re not all driving electric cars and riding electric scooters just yet, and we’re not all sipping cannabis drinks — but both are inevitably on their way to us, and 2018 was the year when we realised as much.
It’s entertaining to speculate on what form both might take, and how they will affect our cities and our recreation. The appearance of alcohol-free cannabis drinks will have an impact on wine production and sales, though fine wine is unlikely to see the rampant weed eclipse its charms: too much culture is at stake, our attention on its sensual identity is too rapt, and the pleasure it provides is too exclusive and too chic. A little further downmarket, though, it will be a very different story.
A number of cannabis drinks will probably be blended with fermented beverages, at least where complexity of flavour is a desideratum; cannabis-infused wines will surely be among them. Which grape variety might most readily lend itself to cannabis infusion? Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious choice, with its repertoire of green notes and the sense it conveys as being fermented as much from plant as fruit. Here’s a note, by contrast, on a mature and transfigured Sauvignon of a sort that I hope and trust will never be polluted with cannabis.