and Hospitality, May 2006
New World wines challenge Old World styles.
The world of wine is divided. It's a civil debate but make no
mistake, there's a battle underway. After California winemakers
shocked Paris by beating out French heavyweights in a 1976 blind
tasting, oenophiles began to divide wines into Old World (France,
Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany) and New World (U.S., Australia,
Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada). In recent
years, more consumers have become aware of the split and are expressing
a preference for one or the other. So what's it all about?
The centuries-old techniques of Old World vintners, which defer
to Mother Nature and deliver more austere and delicate wines,
are being challenged by the pump-up-the-flavour methods of the
New World producers. And the New World is generating the buzz.
The wine styles are different, but even experts can guess incorrectly
sometimes. Perhaps the most interesting development is the current
synthesis - both sides are stealing from each other in a bid for
In each of the four broadest categories of wine - red, white,
sparkling, sweet - France still dominates the high end. Think
Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. Italy and Spain are right up
there too, and top wines from Tuscany or Rioja can command hundreds
of dollars per bottle.
The Old World's best can be summed up in a single word: subtle.
And that subtlety finds its way right down to the least expensive
wines. Many Old World winegrowing areas have a cooler climate.
This means the grapes have higher acid levels and less fruit flavour
and don't get as ripe. Tannins are more obvious, which produces
a slightly bitter, dry taste. Although some Old World reds can
be very dark, most are medium to lighter red and tend to be brighter
because of the higher acidity. Old World wines also tend to improve
with age, and aging adds more earthiness and complexity. Old World
whites tend to be more acidic and sharp, unless of course they're
New World wines can also be summed up in a single word: bold.
And the finest wines of California and Australia now command high
prices. Most of the New World's winegrowing areas are warm to
hot climates which mean riper fruit, higher alcohol levels, softer
tannins and lower acidity. This combination yields easy-drinking
wines that are popular with younger drinkers. "Fruit forward"
is a good way to describe these wines but detractors argue many
are generic and appeal to the "Coca Cola palate." Taste similarly
priced cabernets from California, Chile, and Australia and they'll
be, well, similar. Then try comparing similarly priced Bordeaux,
Riojas, and Chiantis: the differences will be striking - not least
because the grapes are different.
John Szabo, Canada's first Master Sommelier, runs a wine-consulting
service in Toronto. He believes part of a waiter's job is to inform
customers about wines. "A lot of the food being put on plates
today has rich, bold sauces or spicy flavours, which is a good
match for New World wines. If you offer French or Italian haute
cuisine, then Old World wines are the way to go. The classic match
of Asian cuisine with GewŁrztraminer still holds because it's
a bold, plush soft wine, rather like a New World wine." Szabo
cautions that wines with higher alcohol are not ideal for spicy
food as high alcohol can add heat. So what do you do if a customer
ignores you and wants to order the "wrong" wine? Let them, says
Szabo. "You never want to dissuade your customer from ordering
a bottle of wine."
Alvaro Palacio is a winemaker from Rioja who has been working
in Priorat, near Barcelona, for the past 15 years. He studied
in Bordeaux, is very traditional, and his wines are elegantly
austere, yet complex. But Palacio, recently in Toronto, says while
many producers in Priorat make wine the traditional way, "other
producers are very influenced by the New World. They use a lot
of wood, over-ripe grapes and make very heavy wines. I don't like
that. My father taught me harmony in wine-making."
In France, many vin de pays producers of less expensive wines
are now going for big fruit flavours. On the marketing side, France
should get a boost from the recent decision to permit winemakers
to put the grape name on their labels, even on Apellation Controlťe
wines. Varietal labelling was a big coup for the New World. Consumers
got to know what they liked and, not finding familiar names on
wines from Europe, focused more on New World wines. French wines
will still have the Old World flavours, but the thinking is that
consumers in English-speaking countries will be more likely to
There is also evidence things are changing in the New World:
more winemakers are trying blends, which often make for smoother
wines. In Australia, one blend known as GMS (Grenache, Mourvedre,
Shiraz), is growing in popularity but it's not new: it's the classic
blend of France's Rhone valley.
Rick Slomka of the California Wine Institute in Burlington, Ont.,
says there is "tremendous momentum" towards the New World, with
sales in Canada up 16 per cent in 2005, versus a decline of two
per cent in sales of Old World wines. But he also noted California
producers are changing their styles. The state is being divided
up into more AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), which acknowledge
the European concept of terroir - that the same grapes grown in
different areas will taste different. "Consumers now have a view
on pinot from Russian River versus pinot from Santa Barbara. We're
also seeing less of the super-oaked chardonnays that California
was known for. Producers are easing up and letting the fruit come
through."Heavy use of oak is a way to make chardonnay seem sweeter
as oak gives flavours of vanilla and butterscotch in whites. "California
is trying to be more European, and Europe's trying to be more
New World," Slomka concludes.
Big bold New World is doing well right now, but there are signs
consumers may be moving to gentler wines. Pinot noir is a delicate,
light wine, even in the New World. Sales are up considerably and
production in California and New Zealand is on a roll. More and
more unoaked chardonnay is arriving on the market. Some wine sellers
say the big New World reds are really just the new Black Tower:
"I think the shiraz fruit-bomb palate will run its course, just
like white zinfandel and the sweet German whites before it," says
wine agent Bernard Stramwasser of Le Sommelier in Toronto. "People
progress. I think there will soon be greater appreciation of classic
Old World wines."
The best way to stay ahead of the taste curve, then, would be
to encourage people to keep trying different wines, from both
Worlds. Surely there's no better way to help customers progress
than by showing them. At Bu in Montreal, a modern Italian trattoria,
sommelier Patrick St. Vincent offers diners samples. "Everybody
takes flights of three wines at Bu," he says. "Recently we had
three pinot noirs - one from Alsace, one from Burgundy, and one
from New Zealand. People have fun with it, and the waiter will
answer any questions they have. Then they choose the one they
like best to have with dinner."
The battle will rage on, but with the New World taming its oaky,
over-extracted excesses and the Old World improving its sometimes
thin, fruitless offerings, it looks like the real winner is the
Azagador 2002 Crianza, Rioja, Spain. $12.75. Iberowine Imports,
Typical youthful Rioja with a pronounced nose of earthy cherries
and spicy notes. Medium bodied, smooth and only somewhat fruity.
Very Old World, will work with a wide range of foods.
Ch‚teau Roquebrun, Saint-Chinian 2002, France. $24.95. Rouge
et Blanc, Toronto
This oak-aged blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre from Languedoc
has a powerful, complex and elegant nose - not overly fruity and
there's some spiciness. On the palate it's round and smooth, but
not too fruity. Calls for red meats, especially lamb, and herbs
Fanti San Filippo Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2002, Italy. $23.04.
Le Sommelier, Toronto
A fine example of Old World style sangiovese: bright ruby colour
and medium bodied. Sour cherry and other red fruit notes and a
fleeting hint of almond. Much more muted than its Aussie cousin.
Its delicate flavours should work well with pasta, risotto and
Brand New Heavies
Aldinga Bay 2001 McLaren Vale Sangiovese, Australia. $15.20. Le
This one needs to breathe a bit to get going. Black cherry and
red fruit predominate. Good tannins and surprisingly high acidity.
Nice finish. This is what happens to delicate sangiovese in the
brash New World. Drinks nicely on its own.
Carlei Green Vineyards 2003 Shiraz, Heathcote, Australia. $24.95.
Rouge et Blanc, Toronto
Hints of shiraz spiciness and soft tannins. A real juicy powerhouse
on the palate, this is a seriously New World shiraz experience.
Good lingering finish to this meaty, powerful wine. Break out
the steaks or, even better, lamb.
Kenwood Pinot Noir 2004, Russian River, California. $20.95 (also
375ml at $13.10). Rogers. & Co., Toronto
Powerful nose of black cherries and forest fruit with some notes
of smoke and earthiness. Full flavours come through on the palate
yet it stays light and smooth. Tannins and acids are nicely balanced
and there's a soft, ripe finish. A good example of a New World
pinot at a great price. Food-friendly, should go well with leaner
meats and earthier flavours like mushrooms and herbs. Mild cheeses,