If you stick around wine long enough you'll see the same hand-wringing, hear the same prognoses. That the latest generation isn't drinking wine. They have too much debt. Wine has gotten too expensive. The wine future looks dark. And on and on.
You don't believe me? Two decades ago I wrote a column about this very subject. At the time, it was the darkly designated Generation X (then in their twenties and early thirties) who represented the prospective demise of wine. They were drinking beer. To listen back then to market researchers—who are always at the ready to forecast gloom and doom—there was little hope. Gen-Xers had college debt; they could barely, if at all, afford to buy a house. Beer was cheap; wine was expensive. Wine was doomed.
Sound familiar? Sure it does. We've heard, from some market observers, an end-is-near keening about the Millennial generation, many of whom who are now in their thirties. They too have debts; they too can't afford to buy homes (except that, actually, they're now starting to buy them anyway, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal titled "Millennials Kick-Start Housing Market.")
Guess what? Those same market researchers are telling us that Generation X is now buying wine with both hands. And what do you think the Millennials will do when they see some discretionary income? Unlike the Gen-Xers before them, they've long been interested in wine. But conventional and expensive wines have apparently been less than embraced in favor of less well-known wines and grape varieties (which are less expensive). But more mainstream and expensive wines will inevitably get their moment too. It's a no-brainer. Compared to all other American generations before them, these two generational groups are nothing less than connoisseurs. Look at their sophisticated tastes in coffee, beer, even marijuana.
Fine wine has never had so promising a future, never mind what doomsayers submit. There's always attention, and money, to be gained by exploiting fear. (My favorite recent doom-speak is that Napa Valley and its luxury allure will disappear when the fat-wallet dinosaur Boomers die off.) But never, ever fear: Fine wine is forever.
That trumpeted from the rooftops, something else must also be acknowledged: Traditional fine-wine benchmarks are like Old Masters in fine art. They're great, irreplaceable even—but they are finite.
The famous wines we've all heard about are now akin to museum pieces. As with Old Master art, exceedingly few people actually live with them. And those who do—those both able and willing to buy such wines in sufficient quantity, cellar them for the necessary number of years and pour them for themselves and others with a generous hand—are not only exceedingly rich but comparatively few in number.
Such folk are out there, to be sure. The world brims with great wealth—and not all of it is in the hands of buffoons. Discerning wine-drinkers of means are more than numerous enough to support ever-higher prices for the elite handful of Old Master wines. But the great majority of wine lovers can’t compete, more's the pity.
All of which brings me to the question: Are there new wine versions of the Old Masters? The answer is a definitive yes—and no. Yes, there are contemporary New Masters, if you will. Inevitably, one thinks in terms of specific producers, much like one talks about Rembrandt or Titian.
But a more useful way is to look instead at the qualities that make a Master—old or new—deserving of your attention and, yes, pursuit. These are the wines and places in which today's Millennial wine lover, regardless of how old he or she actually is, should be finding modern fine-wine joy. For example:
The Quality of "Burgundian" If there's a Holy Grail in modern wine, it's that vague, I'll-know-it-when-I-taste-it attribute of somehow being "Burgundian.” The definition varies with seemingly every taster. But most, I think, would say that a wine—whatever the actual grape variety—is "Burgundian" when it displays an indefinable savor of site, a certain sort of taste transparency, and somehow gives you a feeling of its uniqueness.
Big, heavy wines are rarely described as "Burgundian.” Ditto for wines that trade on powerful fruit (think Grenache). The Old Master is, after all, Burgundy itself, specifically the Côte d'Or.
And the New Masters? I would suggest the best wines from Spain's Ribeira Sacra zone (via the Mencía grape). The best wines from the westernmost reaches of California's Sonoma Coast, which includes not just Pinot Noirs but Syrahs and Chardonnays as well. The same is true for the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Also, Pinot Noirs from South Africa's blissfully cool Hemel-en-Aarde valley. Chardonnays from Canada's Niagara Peninsula and, especially, Prince Edward County zones. The best Pinot Noirs from New Zealand's North Canterbury and Central Otago districts. Some, but not all, of Oregon's Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs (look for producers with older vineyards planted preponderantly with the Pommard clone).
You get the picture. "Burgundian" is now found way beyond Burgundy itself.
The Quality of "Rhône-ness" Oddly, this is easier than "Burgundian," if only because "Rhône-ness," harking to Syrah and Grenache, trades more on a luxuriance of fruit flavors than does famously more fragile Pinot Noir.
While Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are the indisputable Old Masters, the number of New Masters that are very nearly as accomplished, if not equally so, is impressive. Australian Shiraz (their term for Syrah) surely takes pride of place. The number of superlative Shirazes emerging from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Heathcote and McLaren Vale, among other locales, is stunning.
In California, the roster of pure Syrahs and various Rhône-type blends (Syrah/Grenache/Mourvèdre) of exceptional Rhône-rivaling quality seemingly increases every year. And let's not forget the Grenache likes of Spain's Priorat zone, among many other districts.
The Quality of "Bordeaux-ness" Let's be honest: In the past few decades red Bordeaux has morphed into a style completely different from anything the category produced prior to the 1980s. Today's red Bordeauxs are riper, richer, denser, more powerful, more alcoholic and also more homogenous than ever in the region’s long, glorious history as a treasure trove of fine wine.
Does it have rivals? You know it does. Cabernet and Merlot—blended or taken straight—are grown everywhere. Napa and Sonoma at their best take a backseat to no one and nothing in Bordeaux. But don't forget Australia's Margaret River zone, which creates Bordeaux-style blends that convey traditional "Bordeaux-ness" more so than even Bordeaux itself.
Those are just a few of the Old Masters that now have not just new rivals but true equals that are—or soon will be—indisputable New Masters.
Surely there are other wines and districts—many others—that convey the necessary quality and attributes to succeed what we all recognize as the Old Masters. I'll leave it to you to make your own nominations.