Fraud and the future for wine investment
Probably the biggest wine story of the year was the glacially slow sentencing process in New York that followed the conviction of Rudy Kurniawan on fraud charges in 2013, after a decade-long counterfeit wine scheme. He was due to be sentenced in April this year, but various court delays meant it was August before he was imprisoned for 10 years and ordered to repay $28 million.
It doesn't look like fraud – or at least the concern about counterfeit fine wines – is going to disappear anytime soon.It was the biggest fraud case ever in the wine world, but it wasn't the only one this year. Italian police seized 165,000 mislabeled Brunello di Montalcino wines in September, the second time wrongly labelled wines had emerged during the year. Back in the U.S., Bill Koch won damages from both Eric Greenberg and Rudy Kurniawan, and Georgia real-estate mogul Julian LeCraw issued proceedings against a British wine merchant.
2014 vintage ups and downs
In Europe, the harvest was very mixed, with a poor summer and unseasonal hail storms leaving grapegrowers in many regions fearing the worst. Italy was hit particularly hard, while in Bordeaux and Burgundy a warm, sunny September saved the harvest. In France in particular there were sighs of relief all around after the very small vintages of 2012 and 2013, at last 2014 delivered decent quantity with overall good, if not always exceptional quality.
While California, Oregon and Washington all had great harvests, Finger Lakes in New York was declared a disaster zone in March after a brutal winter destroyed some vineyards.
The Southern Hemisphere was no different, with four of the five major growing countries reporting "challenging" vintages. Chile struggled with frost, Argentina with rain, while Australia was hit by frost, rain and cooler-than-normal temperatures. South Africa was also hit by untimely rain, but New Zealand had a record harvest, with many areas reporting superb quality as well as quantity.
Fine wines and auctions
There is something odd going on in the world of fine wine investment. While the Liv-ex fine wine index shows a virtually moribund Bordeaux market, auction houses are reporting record prices and solid demand for both Burgundy and Bordeaux. Clearly there are still plenty of people out there with deep pockets and a taste for the top wines. And yet it took a single wine, Château Montrose to inject some life into the Bordeaux market. The 2010 wine was upgraded to 100 points by Robert Parker and shot up in price, dragging the otherwise flat Bordeaux market with it.
Several significant wine properties changed hands this year and again this year one of the strongest themes was Chinese investment. While the Chinese might not be buying quite so much French wine anymore, they are certainly buying French wineries. Bordeaux has been a popular place with Chinese investors and this year saw some branch out into Languedoc and there were other sales in Napa and New Zealand. Australia saw some quick changes this year, too, with historic brands like Grant Burge and Peter Lehmann being swallowed up by bigger companies. Expect that to continue in 2015.
The U.S. now the biggest wine consumer
French traditionalists would have cried into their Montrachet as the U.S. was crowned world's top wine consumer this year. The sea change is remarkable on two levels. First is the dramatic fall-off in French consumption, which plummeted by 7 percent; then you have Americans happily sipping a little extra each and voilà, the world is turned on its head. Still, the French can console themselves with the knowledge that they are still the biggest per capita consumers of wine among the major wine-producing nations, with only the tiny microstate of Andorra and the Vatican City ahead of them.
Empire takes on the State
It might seem a small, local thing, but a store's decision to take the New York State Liquor Authority to court over the issue of interstate shipping could have a lasting impact. The S.L.A. has been threatening Empire, an upstate New York retailer with various punishments because Empire had allegedly sold wine to states that didn't allow out-of-state sales. Stung by the S.L.A.'s heavy-handed attempts to strong-arm the store, Empire turned around and started a lawsuit against the S.L.A., saying it was acting unconstitutionally. The case is ongoing, but if this helps to get laws banning interstate shipping declared unconstitutional, Empire will have done wine drinkers a huge service.
The comeback of Port with the 2011 vintage
While port had been enjoying something of a renaissance, this year marked real progress. The 2011 Dow's Vintage Port was named wine of the year by Wine Spectator and two still wines from the Douro Valley joined it in the top five. But it was Port that stole the headlines, with a renewed interest in older Tawnies, Colheitas and even White Ports, and widespread agreement that the 2011 vintage was one out of the bag.
It wasn't just winemakers and merchants talking it up either – the public responded by buying it by the bucketload, returning Port to its place at the top table of wine.
A 2014 roll of honor
We lost a few legends of the winemaking world this year, but none more celebrated than Baronne Philippine de Rothschild. Madame de Rothschild, as she preferred to be known, took her final bow after leading Château Mouton Rothschild and its joint ventures in the New World to ever greater heights. She was buried amid the vines of her beloved property.
Bordeaux also said goodbye to winemaker Jacques Boissenot, who had a hand in four of the five first growths, and Christine Valette-Pariente, the proprietor of Château Troplong Mondot, who died aged 57. Champagne magnate Nicolas Feuillatte, Alsace winemaker Laurence Faller, Burgundy's Hubert de Montille and English sparkling wine pioneer Mike Roberts also died this year.
Critics agree for once
One of the more under-the-radar stories this year was the alliance between wine critics Stephen Tanzer and Antonio Galloni under the Vinous umbrella. Quite a few people heard the news and asked: "So what?" but the move was seen by others as the start of jockeying for position in a post-Parker world. The acknowledged king of the critics still holds the throne, but he appears more distant as the years pass. Will 2015 see the passing of the baton? And, if so, to whom?