Home » 20 years of Observer Food Monthly: how the wine trade was all shook up | Wine

20 years of Observer Food Monthly: how the wine trade was all shook up | Wine

The supposedly sedate, conservative world of wine has been anything but in the years since Philip Schofield told OFM’s Tim Atkin about his passion for claret as the pair toured his purpose-built cellar in the magazine’s first wine column in April 2001.

Back then, France was still fending off the New World charge that would see it lose its position as the biggest seller of wine in the UK’s wine shops to Australia, with much press fanfare, in 2002, before being relegated into third place by the USA, (specifically California) in 2008.

If that epochal shift had been coming, other changes took most wine professionals by surprise. In 2001, for example, prosecco was a quirky regional drink, encountered and fondly remembered by visitors to Venice, but far from being a household name beyond north-east Italy. In the years since, production has grown from 60m to 600m bottles a year, as prosecco has become the vinous success story of the 21st century so far.

Prosecco’s rise is just a part of what has been a golden age for sparkling wines. In the early 2000s, Champagne was responsible for almost all the best sparkling wines in the world; in the years since, producers from Austria, Germany, Canada, Tasmania, Catalonia, Franciacorta and Trentino in northern Italy, and, perhaps most promising of all, southern England, have all emerged to challenge the northern French region’s hegemony with some truly spellbinding bottles.

It’s been a good century so far, too, for rosé producers, as the style, once seen as a kind of byproduct of red winemaking, became a consumer favourite and producers began to treat their pink wines with more care and craft. Other styles that were just starting their journey to ubiquity today include the sumptuous malbecs of Argentina and the salty-peachy dry whites made from albariño in Galicia, while a new colour category, orange wine, has emerged, for those wines made from white wines aged in contact with their skins.

The latter are very much a product of the most exciting development of the past 20 years in wine, the proliferation of small producers, often in obscure or neglected wine regions, that have overseen a generational shift in what, for want of a better term, I’ll call fine wine.

In 2001, any discussion of the world’s best wines would have skewed a lot like Schofield’s wine collection: heavy on the Bordeaux, followed by Burgundy, with asides on Alsace, the Rhône, Australia, Portugal (for port) and Italy. Today, fine wines are as likely to come from Tenerife, Etna, Santa Barbara, Swartland, or an obscure corner of the Loire or Languedoc, as from those traditional classic regions.

Some of the new wave will be part of the low-intervention, back-to-basics natural wine movement, the hugely influential scene that emerged in the 2000s as wine’s equivalent to craft beer. Others will have absorbed some of the naturalists’ ideas while maintaining a healthy scepticism about its wilder claims.

All will prefer local grapes, remote sites, old vines where possible, and organic or sustainable farming practices. Together they’ve shaken up a sleepy trade like never before.

Wines that define the trends

Yalumba Organic Viognier
South Australia, Australia 2019 (£9.99, Waitrose)

Australia became the UK’s favourite wine producing country in 2003, but its wine making scene is considerably more interesting now. Yalumba’s apricot and honeysuckle-scented dry white has been a consistent performer throughout.

Clos du Tue-Boeuf Guerrerie
Tourraine, Loire, France 2018 (from £23.10, parchedwines.co.uk; lescaves.co.uk)

One of the early break-out stars of the natural wine movement, the enchantingly fresh, vividly lively, thirst-quenchingly crunchy red wines of Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat’s Clos du Tue-Boeuf remain standouts of the scene.

Rigal Vin Orange
France 2019 (£10, Morrisons)

This is a creditable attempt to mass-produce orange wine, a style originally developed by smaller, natural-minded producers, with the white gros manseng grapes left in contact with the skins to bring a hint of red wine-like texture and vermouth-like herbal notes.

Bride Valley Brut Reserve
Dorset, England 2017 (£32.45, bridevalleyvineyard.com)

The precision, depth and nervy energy of this cuvée from the home vineyard of the much-missed wine writer Stephen Spurrier, who died earlier this year, is a superb illustration of how far English sparkling wine has come in the past 20 years.

Norton Winemaker’s Reserve Malbec
Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina 2018 (£12.99, Waitrose)

Buffed, polished, with chocolate, plums and floral notes, this is a beautifully made, textbook example of a wine style that has deepened and diversified as it has assumed must-list status in shops and restaurants around the world in the past 20 years.

Lismore Syrah
Greyton, South Africa 2017 (£38.99, or £28.99 as part of a mixed case of six bottles, majestic.co.uk)

Californian Samantha O’Keefe is one of a new wave of winemakers who have transformed South African wine in the past 20 years. This stylish syrah, made before her estate was burned by wildfire (she’s currently rebuilding), blends spice and perfectly ripe fruit with depth and finesse.