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Wine predictions for 2008

Predicting the future is a mugís game, and itís not something most people are any good at. After all, anyone who had a real talent for it would never need to work again. Still, itís quite fun to look ahead and guess where the next 12 months might lead.

So, what does 2008 have in store for the wine world? Here are some of my predictions, some of which are specific to the UK market, others of which are global. Iím sure Iíve got most of these wrong, but Iím going to stick my neck outÖ

(1) Itís going to be an increasingly competitive market, which is bad news for producers of commodity wines and brand owners. Most people see wine as a commodity, and they know how much they want to spend on itówhich is usually as little as will buy them a reasonably drinkable bottle of wine. As a recent Asda press tasting demonstrated to me, itís still possible to buy quite drinkable wines for £3 a bottle in the UK, which is startling when you consider that prices at the bottom end for wine havenít really changed in the last 10 years. Getting people to trade up much beyond £4 is beginning to look like a bit of a fantasy, especially when you consider point (2) below.

(2) The financial pages are looking pretty gloomy, with all this talk of credit crunch and global recession. Most people are likely to be doing a bit of belt tightening over the next year, which is bad news for wine producers and retailers, because when it comes down to a choice between feeding your kids and buying wine en primeur, the kids tend to win out (most of the time). But I donít think this will hit prices too much at the very high end: the finest wines will continue to become increasingly unaffordable as the small quantities made are being chased by a growing band of multimillionaires around the world, such that demand for a limited resource should keep prices high. While the prospect of economic slowdown or recession means decreased earning potential for most, I donít think it will hit the growing ranks of the super wealthy to the extent that theyíll stop buying fine wines.

(3) Neoprohibitionism is on the move. Towards the back end of last year there were lots of stories in the news about the dangers of middle class wine drinking. Rather than target binge drinkers with health messages as they have in the past, the UK government has now turned on the large numbers of professionals who drink a bottle of wine a night with their dinner, claiming that this sort of consumption is likely to have long-term health implications. Just you wait: this sort of talk is sure to precede a massive hike in duty, because making booze more expensive seems to be the only way to stop people drinking so much. But I have two questions: (1) is the government sure that drinking a bottle of wine with dinner is going to cause real health problems in the long-term?; and (2) if the country really is drinking itself to death, why is that? Shouldnít they be getting tough on the causes of problem drinking, rather than just targeting the behaviour? My worry is that all this anti-booze propaganda will cause healthy, pleasure-giving, life-enhancing wine drinking to become seen by the majority as socially unacceptable.

(4) Alternative packaging will become more accepted by consumers. Bag-in-box has been around for a while, and has a loyal following. But what we will see more of is the likes of Tetrapak (and variations on the theme) and bladder packs (effectively bag-in-box without the box), as well as increasing use of PET (plastic) bottles. Part of the drive for this will be environmental/carbon footprint concerns.

(5) High alcohol wines are going to take a bit of a beating this year. Guilty producers will finally begin to realize that over-ripe, alcoholic, international-styled reds are boring and a bit pointless, and theyíll look to make wines that reflect their sites better by adapting their viticulture and picking a little earlier.

(6) Wine retailers will finally twig that trying to sell fine wine to intelligent customers on the basis of ĎRP96í scores is a bit silly.

(7) Closures: cork will continue to lose customers as alternatives take new ground. Cork will remain the main closure for fine wines, but for commercial wines the likes of screwcaps, Diam, synthetic corks and Vino-Lok. With screwcaps, fewer wines will be sealed with the tin/saran liners and more producers will be using the saranex-only liner. (Sorry, this is a bit tecchie...)

(8) So, what about the various wine producing countries? I reckon it will be a good year for New Zealand as people wake up to the fact that thereís more to Kiwi land than Sauvignon Ė in particular, some very smart reds. At the bottom end, the USA should be able to wrestle some market share from Australia (drought problems mean less wine to sell). Chile will continue to do well with its less expensive wines; it will continue to learn and struggle a bit with its high end wines, and its whites will get increasing recognition. Argentina will gain a bit of ground with its reds, although whites will be more of a problem. France and Spain will begin to show that they can actually make decent commercial wines in significant volumes, and will outperform the new world in the £5Ė10 bracket. Portugal will take further strides at the top end (Douro in particular), but will remain a bit hit and miss at the commercial end of the market.

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