I have been considering the proposition lately that numerous of the recent trends in the wine industry - led by high-end wines from the world's three or four greatest wine regions - may now be coming to a slow and somewhat grinding halt.
Over the past decade or two, we have seen an unprecidented democratization of so-called ultra-premium wine. In North America, and more recently East Asia, where much of the world's super-premium wine is now sold, a new breed of consumer has entered the marketplace in vast numbers, as economic liberalization and the enormous wealth creation it has wrought has expanded the fine wine and luxury markets exponentially. This trend has by now been aptly commented upon, to the extent that I can add very little here.
But this has left traditional traditional buyers and collectors - namely those already collecting 20 years ago and those who might well have been expected to be in this market anyway - scratching their heads. Their tastes are not those of the parvenue. Nor are their expense accounts, nor their tolerance for the sort of excess which tolerates the kinds of prices we've seen asked for wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Napa Valley over the past decade or so. The worst excess, as is so often the case, can be seen at the top of the spectrum. The inflation we've seen in the sector of the market which might be labeled "auction-worthy" has been almost unfathomable.
So, a wider consumption base has produced scarcity, and therefore higher prices. So what? Perhaps more interesting has been the changes taking place in the wines themselves. Traditional collectors historically understood wine to be a living, breathing thing - almost a friend, one that would be with them for many years, and whom they would visit periodically to catch up on things. They would see how things had changed, how the wine, their friend, developed over time. what new things might it say to them this time? what intriguing thing would the wine say next? As a result, great wines were afforded that status largely based upon their ability to age gracefully in the cellar. How they matured, changed and evolved over time - often very much for the better - was an important factor in determining their relative worth.
Today, even most of the most expensive wines are consumed within a few years, and most are consumed within just weeks of purchase. As a result, wines tend to be tailored to that schedule. Most are now far more approachable in their youth than has ever been the case, and most amply display the fruit-centered, sweet-tasting flavors that the new-wave consumer favors. Again, this development has been aptly chronicled, and any further comment might seem like piling on. It is a trend possible to defend, but impossible to refute, and one that coincides with the others mentioned above. Democracy has meant, inevitably perhaps, democratic tastes.