Economy & Wine 4

Looking ahead to 2009 seems to be a scary proposition if you listen to the economists. Stocks and the housing market haven’t hit bottom, they say, while uncertainty about jobs and a new president are adding to our jitters.

While it isn’t fun to live with uncertainty, it is fun to talk about wine. This time of year, it’s especially fun to make educated guesses about what trends are afoot. For their insights, we asked Guy Stout, master sommelier for Glazer’s distributing; Ray Ayala, wine specialist with Republic Beverages; and Natalie MacLean, wine expert and author with a popular newsletter, Nat Decants.

From comfort wines to crisp Spanish whites, good-value sparkling rosés to the surging popularity of wines from the Pacific Northwest, these wine lovers cast aside the gloom from the economists and give us reasons to look forward to the year ahead.

Stout, in Houston, says he believes that moderately priced red wines will “be on fire. I think that instead of the $50 bottle of Napa cabernets, people will be going for bottles at $25 or in that range. Napa will stay strong, but some of the more expensive wines will have a harder time,” he says. Related to this trend, says Stout, is another: He sees a resurgence of wines that we might call comfort brands, or brands such as Beringer or Mondavi.

“People are comfortable with these brands, they know them, they don’t expect any surprises.”

Argentina, says Stout, will continue to provide its excellent malbecs, the lush, dark-red wine that has become that country’s specialty.

“I think Chile is doing real well, too. They’ve started to shake their $5-a-bottle image,” says Stout. Marques de Casa Concha and Casa Lapostolle are a couple of brands he recommends.

For good buys in sparkling wines, the sommelier looks to Spain and Italy. “I’m drinking cavas and prosecco right now,” he says.

For lightly crisp Spanish whites, another wine rising in popularity, he suggests albarinos from Rias Biaxas, a DO in Galicia, in northwest Spain. Two in particular are Morgadio and Martin Codax. Another great Spanish white he recommends is Marques de Caceras White Rioja.

Ray Ayala, of Republic, concurs with Stout that Argentine malbecs will continue their growth curve. “That’s because of their value, especially now because of the exchange rate between here and Argentina,” he says.

In the United States, merlot is coming back, Ayala says. “After 10 years of overplanting, they’ve picked up the quality.”

He recommends merlots from Swanson (a benchmark merlot) and Shafer vineyards. Shafer’s merlot sells out every year and is a good value at around $30, he says.

Where there is also a big uptick in quality as well as sales now, he notes, is in wines from the Pacific Northwest. “We’re seeing a lot more widespread distribution that’s hitting the mainstream now,” he says. Pinot noirs from Oregon, especially the Willamette Valley, and cabernet and merlot from Washington’s Walla Walla and Columbia Valley regions.

One might argue that rosé Champagnes and sparklers are perennial trends, but the sales of still wines that are pink in hue, as well as the pink sparklers, continue to rise, Ayala says.

“The Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé is just beautiful,” he says.

It’s not cheap, usually retailing in the high-$70s-to-low-$80s range, but if you’re going to splurge on a French Champagne, this is the place to do it, he says. Another sparkling value comes from Domaine Carneros, with the wine selling for under $40.

MacLean, editor of the award-winning wine e-newsletter at www.nataliemaclean.com, says, “The slow economy has been a boon to the great undervalued gems of the wine world. In particular, it’s putting the spotlight on Argentine malbec, South African shiraz and Chilean cabernet: All are terrific values on the liquor store shelves.”

From the several hundred wine aficionados who visit her site daily, she says she knows that great taste at value prices is what most are looking for.

And more and more people are dining at home since that’s cheaper than going to a restaurant. So, more than ever, they want a good bottle to make that meal special. “Wines under $20 are going to continue to rise in popularity in 2009 and they’re increasingly the bulk of my top reviews,” says MacLean.

“To my great relief, I’m also seeing a consumer shift away from critter labels (think purple reptiles, pink iguanas and the like) and more toward wines that tell the story about where they’re made,” MacLean says. “More and more wine lovers know that wine usually tastes better when it’s tied more closely to a place than to a marketing plan.”

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