This is the time of year when wine writers, exhausted from writing holiday bottle and gift recommendations — and from consuming copious amounts of champagne during our research — slump forward and peer into our navels to predict trends for the coming year. This is half prediction, half wishful thinking. Here's my take on what we can expect in 2018:
Packaging: We can expect more wines in kegs, boxes and cans rather than the traditional bottles. Not that bottles will be tossed away, by any means. The alternatives are a small percentage of the market, but that percentage will continue to grow as better wines become available in these formats.
Kegs are ideal for restaurants and by-the-glass programs. They keep wine fresh, avoiding the "When was this bottle opened?" problem. They are ideal for carafes or half carafes, or the three-ounce taste instead of the six-ounce glass. Wineries and restaurants have been dancing a delicate Kabuki around supply vs. demand, but as better wines become available in convenient formats, we should be seeing more wine in kegs. Mid-level restaurants should be an ideal market for this format. Casual local restaurants or chains can offer better, fresher by-the-glass options without much additional cost, while offering a sustainable market for wineries with enough wine to offer in kegs.
Cans and boxes are for consumers. Box wines still have a negative stigma as being cheap plonk. But if you have a favorite Cotes-du-Rhone you regularly buy as your house red at $12, wouldn't you like to have a three-liter box of the same wine at $30, or $7.50 per bottle? We need to get over the stigma of box wine. It's also great for parties, tailgates, beach gatherings and other occasions — as long as the wine is good.
Cans also have a convenience advantage. They're great for picnics, beach or park outings, or just when you want a little bit of wine but not a whole bottle. They're also easier on the environment, with less carbon footprint than a glass bottle, and easier to recycle or dispose of. And they are casual, which will fit in with the marketing of wine as an everyday tipple, rather than a stuffy drink for the elite.
Unexpected wines: We know wine regions for certain wines. Argentina for malbec, Oregon for pinot noir and New Zealand for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. But these three regions also produce exceptional chardonnay. We know Chile for cabernet sauvignon, merlot and perhaps carmenere, but it also produces some great sauvignon blanc and carignan. Australia means shiraz, but Riesling and pinot noir are also exciting. And South Africa is sending us some wonderful old-vine chenin blanc and shiraz. I want to see more of these.
As winemaking continues to improve around the world, we will see great values emerge from unexpected places. Recent years have seen delicious, inexpensive wines from Bulgaria and Turkey. Look for more bargains from Moldova and Armenia.
Natural wines: These unconventional, minimalist wines are becoming increasingly mainstream; they are arguably as much political statement as viticulture, but they have escaped the bohemian confines of Manhattan and Los Angeles to permeate wine bars in Washington and other cities. We will see more of them on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists as distribution expands beyond the big cities.
And oh yes, there will be more petillant-naturel, or pet-nat, wines before this fad fades. These wines are the darlings of millennials, sommeliers and winemakers, and they are tasty. But will consumers continue to accept them as more than a novelty at $20 to $30, when more classic sparkling wines are available?
Urban wineries: Wineries have moved off the farm into the city. This started perhaps in 2008 with City Winery in New York City, the brainchild of music impresario Michael Dorf. Though City Winery featured barrels in its dining room, it was more a dining and concert venue than a winery. The concept has since spread to Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville and Boston. A new location is about to open in the District. Similar concepts have also spread, including District Winery in Washington, an offshoot of New York's Brooklyn Winery.
The urban winery concept embodies wine as experience. Wine is not an agricultural product but something to be enjoyed during a wedding, a concert or a night on the town. A winery is not a farm but an event venue. That idea will upset purists.
But at least we have our navels.