Wine fans, take heart: Today is the best time in history to be an aficionado of the fermented grape.
Choices are greater than ever, with 87 varieties in commercial production, from aglianico to mourvèdre to zinfandel.
Grapes are grown in more places, from California to England, Australia to Bulgaria, Michigan to China.
Quality is improving with each harvest.
“With all the wonderful, unique wines coming out, it’s a great time to be a winemaker, an even greater time to be a consumer,” says Chuck Wagner, owner-winemaker of Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley, who will be honored for his life’s work at this weekend’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Prices are stable. U.S. wine prices are up an average of only 21 cents a bottle from last year, mostly among the more-expensive brands. Imported wine prices are down 2 percent. European wineries compete to export to the United States, creating bargains for Americans, because Spanish, French and Italian sippers are undergoing a generational shift away from wine to beer and soft drinks.
Online wine sales were up 9.3 percent last year, giving us access to boutique wines we couldn’t buy before because they were made in quantities too small for national distribution.
Wine fans are savvier, too, and South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder and executive director Lee Brian Schrager claims some credit for that.
“We’ve educated a lot of people in the 13 years of this festival,” Schrager says. “People crave this information, from the seminars, the walk-around tastings.”
This year’s festival will present more than 700 wines at events including a “vertical” tasting of Italian red barolo, with vintages from 1990 to 2008 — a feat that probably couldn’t be duplicated anywhere but the winery.
Winemaking has gotten smarter, too. In the vineyards at Caymus, Wagner uses aerial photos to monitor leaf diseases and spot areas where the soil is too wet or too rocky, helping him plant and maintain the vines.
In the winery, computers precisely control fermentation temperatures and pumping procedures, and cleanliness standards approach those of hospitals.
Still, all the new technology may be less important than simple farming — what growers have learned about cultivating grapes since the 1970s. If nothing else, they’ve learned what to plant where, Wagner says.
“Napa makes great cabernet sauvignon, but it’s too warm for early-ripening grapes like riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay,” he says. “In the ’60s my dad planted some of those early grapes in Napa. It took a couple of years to see they wouldn’t make good wine. Today we look for the cooler California coast for them.”
Another boon to wine fans is that wine varieties continue to expand.
On the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, Italy’s Mastroberardino family has resurrected the full-bodied, mineral-scented Greco di Tufo grape, which was born in ancient times and had almost gone extinct.
At the University of Minnesota, researchers are about to launch a grape too new to have a name that was bred to survive northern winters down to 40 degrees below zero.
England today, thanks to climate change, has more than 230 vineyards, from Berkshire to Surrey. China makes a sparkling wine called Dragon Seal near the Great Wall, and is on track to become the world’s biggest producer and consumer of wine in less than 10 years.
Wine fans are taking advantage of the increased variety to stretch their palates. Trending today are moscato, malbec and sweet red wines. Prosecco is the darling of the 21-somethings.
Wagner, at Caymus, has watched it happen for more than 40 years, so he’s realistic.
“There’s no guarantee. You can still spend a lot of money on a wine and feel injured. But overall, the wines we make today are much better than what we made years ago.”
Here are 20 wines under $20 — each from a different grape.
2012 William Hill Estate Chardonnay, North Coast: rich and creamy, with aromas and flavors of lemons, mangos and spice; $17.
2009 Lange Twins Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi: black cherries and dark chocolate; $15.
2011 Sandstone Merlot, Wente Vineyards: hint of oak, rich black cherries; $18.
2012 McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Grigio, California: crisp and lively, green apple flavors; $10.
2011 Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, Italy (prugnolo gentile grape, a local sangiovese clone): black cherries and licorice; $15.
2008 Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine, Niagara, Ontario, Canada: Rich, ripe tropical flavors, an ultra-sweet dessert wine; $8 per 50 milliliter bottle.
2012 Alamos Torrontés, Salta, Argentina: a light, crisp white wine with minerals and lychee flavors; $13.
2011 Mirassou Moscato, California: sweet peaches and oranges; $12.
2011 Famiglia Bianchi Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: black cherries and milk chocolate, hearty and rich; $19.
Nonvintage LaMarca Prosecco, Treviso, Italy (glera grape): gentle bubbles, hint of sweetness, white grapefruit and honey flavors; $17.
2009 Bodegas Muriel “Crianza” Rioja, Spain (tempranillo grape): light in body, flavors of tart cherries and licorice; $16.
2012 Benziger Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast: bright and crisp, limes and minerals; $15.
2012 Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir, California: lush black cherry and chocolate flavors; $15.
2011 Jekel Vineyards Riesling, Monterey: lightly sweet, with flavors of citrus and ripe peaches; $16.
2011 Vietti “Tre Vigne” Barbera d’Asti, Italy: hefty black plum flavors; $18.
2011 Matchbook Syrah, Dunnigan Hills: firm and hearty, with flavors of blueberries and espresso; $16.
2012 Hardy’s Nottage Hill Shiraz, South Eastern Australia: sweet, warm vanilla, licorice and black cherries; $13.
2011 Casillero del Diablo Carmenere Reserva, Concha y Toro, Santiago, Chile: deep red hue, black raspberries and black coffee, heady and smooth; $12.
2012 “Arcturos” Pinot Gris, Black Star Farms, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan: Tasting of melons and minerals; $18.
2011 Pedroncelli “Mother Clone” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley: hearty and rich, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and espresso; $17.