California! France!

Foodservice 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 market share.

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 sweet.

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 try them.

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 wine consumer.

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Golden Oldies
Azagador 2002 Crianza, Rioja, Spain. $12.75. Iberowine Imports, Toronto
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 and cheeses.

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 veal.

Brand New Heavies
Aldinga Bay 2001 McLaren Vale Sangiovese, Australia. $15.20. Le Sommelier, Toronto
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, too.

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