Responses from wine-pages visitors at bottom of page.
This is part II. To catch up with the whole story, please read part I.
In part one I condemned the relentless rise of dullard’s wine, in the form of identikit, lightly oaked slop from the southern hemisphere. Those who joined with me will probably have found themselves from time to time being asked what they would prefer to drink in its place. ‘Surely not the traditional wines of old Europe,’ goes the cry, ‘that bureaucratic nursing-home of nepotism, slovenly practices and adulteration scandals. The New World has given them a right seeing-to, hasn’t it?’
In terms of sheer market-share, this revisionist plea is indeed hard to counter. Australia alone is well on the way to head-butting France off the dinner-tables of Britain (it already virtually has knocked it off the shelves of Oddbins – once a fine, independent-minded wine-merchant, now little more than a forcing-house for as much oaky Chardonnay as it can get down the gullets of a gullible public). Taken together, the ensemble of non-European countries that British flat-earthers insist on calling the New World is already outstripping France.
And about time too, the revisionists whinge. With their thickets of regulations and their belief that nobody else in the global vineyard matters as much as them, they deserved the hiding they are getting in the market. Not to mention the fact that they can’t make wine properly anyway. Their miserable marginal climates are a joke compared to the sun-swamped splendour of the Barossa or Napa Valleys. To which one can only respond with a resounding ‘Grow up!’The old chestnut that it is the appellation contrôlée system (and its equivalents) that has held the European countries back from achieving what they might, while the New Worlders soar ahead in unfettered creative freedom, always was a load of old toffee-flavoured Chardonnay.
Just as the constraints of the studio system resulted in Hollywood’s never-bettered golden age, and the existence of the old playlist made Radio 1 a listenable thing of beauty instead of the playpen of shrieking mediocrity it now is, so the appellation regulations are responsible for the highest achievements of world wine.
There may be mediocre producers in Pouilly-Fumé and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not half as many as there are in suit-yourself Riverina. And if the appellations are such a naff idea, then how come every New World winery worth its sulphur dioxide produces premium bottlings from selected sites? Trickle Creek Vineyards Yew Tree Hill Pinot Noir – what’s that if it’s not an appellation?
The idea that the Europeans, the French in particular, sniffily disregard the wine industries of other countries is another soggy old myth. They couldn’t be more aware of the competition, as anybody who regularly visits French wine-producers will know. It’s just that, whereas the vignerons in appellations like Cahors once wondered what chance they stood against the likes of gloopy Shiraz from the hot countries, they now realise that imitating such a style – even were the vintage conditions to make it possible – is somewhat beneath them. A red wine as thick and as sweet and as simple as plum jam is kids’ stuff. Good Cahors (and there is plenty of it about) is for grown-ups.Anybody who has ever undertaken a course of wine study will have started out being told that the vine thrives best in poor soils and marginal climates. Older vines and lower yields produce the best wines.
To gaze upon the Gadarene rush to the Antipodes that our retail buyers have led is to be made aware of how much that lesson has been forgotten.
In honing our tastebuds away from wines with crisp acidity, savoury edge, restrained astringency and sane alcohol levels, we have undergone a wholesale regression into infantility, and in the process burdened ourselves with wines that only very approximately accompany our best culinary efforts (not to mention those of the city brasserie where it is naturally presumed that only a fool would spurn the chance of a galumphing Shiraz to set beside the truffle-oiled mash).
There is of course sub-standard wine in France and Europe, as there is anywhere the vine is cultivated. The difference is that the very best wines that France, and southern Italy, and northern Spain, and the Alentejo, and the Mosel, can offer are each unmatched anywhere else on the planet.
Clare Valley Riesling will never in a month of bloody Sundays be Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Marlborough Sauvignon has the fruit, but not the acid grip or the peculiar flinty density of top Sancerre. Will Napa Valley Merlot ever be as great as pedigree Pomerol? Or sparkling sweet Cabernet ever keep them awake at night in Champagne?I was once called ‘a vintage snob’ for these views by a writer of shopping-lists in the broadsheet press. But really – make yourself a list of which wines you would like to see on the menu at your very last supper on earth. Will it be méthode traditionnelle or the real thing? Will it be a vigorous young Sauternes, or a painstakingly rotted Semillon from the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area?
Don’t make me laugh.
Responses to this essay
Geoff Smith, Napa California
Hello Stuart, I’ve found your essay interesting and thought-provoking. Additionally, I find myself agreeing with much of what you say. Certainly, the greatest achievements of wine made in the “Old World” are just that, superb, inimitable creations which can never be duplicated, as each terroir is by definition unique.
I am always uncomfortable with the constantly surfacing predicament of “us verus them.” It seems that even in the so-seeming civilized world of wine, that tribalism exists—here I’m referring to the slagging of wines from a certain European country, which frequently one hears here in California. Sure, we can create a multitude of dualities to weigh—Old World versus New World, California Cabernet Sauvignon versus Bordeaux, Oregon Pinot noir versus Burgundy. Yes, there are many industrial chardonnays, to take your example, which disappoint; and, yes, many of them are products of the New World, with it’s tendancy towards large, modern economies of scale.
Nonetheless, there are vignerons to be found in New World viticulture and winemaking. And these grapegrowers and winemakers can have the same desire and goal as their Old World counterparts, and, I should add, are able to create great wines as well.
To my mind, this is the duality as I perceive it: vigneron versus industrial wine factory. And yes, the Old World has it’s share of industrial wines just as disgusting as the New World ones! The divide as I see it is the vigneron who lives with his family and farms the vineyard, producing in the cellar a beautiful wine, a wine with soul, if you will; and this person can be found in every grapegrowing region in the world. The wine he or she produces is completely different from the industrial, mass-produced, corporate product. Even if the industrial wine produced has positive qualities, it can never contain an elusive essential nature found in small, batch-produced and vigneron produced wine. Perhaps it has to do with batch-producing (example, an open-top fermenter must of necessity hold only a small quantity of must), as well as the fact that the vigneron can monitor wine in a few barrels much more successfully and with much more attention than a large winery, which frequently stacks barrels in such quantity as to prevent frequent observation.
My conclusion, is this: the vigneron is the champion of the wine world. New world examples: Dehlinger, Kistler, Scherrer of Sonoma County, California, to name a few; Old world examples, Lingenfelder (Rheinpfalz), Chevillon (Burgundy), Gauby (Languedoc). These vignerons farm their vines with meticulous care, and, by putting exceptional care in, and striving to constantly improve their wines, create wines of unique purity and beauty reflecting the nature of location of their vineyards.
Contrary to this, is the sea of industrially produced, if user-friendly and inexpensive, wine-based products which occasionally ressemble the real thing.
|Stuart’s response to Geoff:
Geoff – You put the point very elegantly, and it is a case I agree with wholeheartedly. It may seem to be so uncontroversial as to command general assent, and yet not so – in the UK, at least. Here our wine writers are only too happy to keep plugging the mass-produced industrial wines that constitute the meat and drink of the high-street trade, and have wilfully forgotten the love and pride that go into the best wines not only of Europe, but of the quality-conscious producers of the USA, and – to a lesser extent – New Zealand and Chile. If I seem to be disproportionately beastly to the Australians, it is because their wine industry (more than any of the other non-European countries) is so in hock to lowest-common-denominator wines, ‘industrial wines’ as you rightly call them. To the large combines, wine is not an appreciably different commodity to beer, hence their childish over-reliance on never-varying sweet Chardonnay and jammy Shiraz. This is not, I’m sure, destined to be the ultimate fate of Australia as a wine producer, but until they grow up, and until the scales fall from the British wine writers’ eyes on this matter, they do not deserve to sit at the top table.
Thank you for another entertaining and provocative piece on the subject of the perceived two great battlegrounds of the wine world. Whilst I am not a huge fan of the Sun/Daily Mirror school of journalism, I do align my views partly with those expressed in the second half of your essay. However, as with my previous comments on Part 1, I would like to highlight some of the positive aspects of the success of “New World” wines.
Firstly, the popularity, accessibility and affordability of much New World wine have introduced a new generation and class of drinkers to vinous pleasures. I believe this has worked in a similar way as did the association of fragments of well known opera with world cup football some years ago, which introduced new recruits to a noble musical format, or indeed the “street cred” of a certain punk violinist, which converted hordes to classical music. I have many friends who started on overstated New World supermarket wine ten years ago, who have now begun to appreciate classical Old World elegance and complexity, as well as its plethora of regional characteristics. But, crucially, had it not been for the easily approachable and likeable New World offerings, they might never have seen the world but from the rim of a beer glass.
Secondly, whilst I firmly believe in appellation controlée regulations (even though they are often broken), I can understand how the brand “Aussie Chardonnay” sells quicker than “Puligny Montrachet, Les Combettes” – especially to a non-French speaker. Luckily, I am educated about wine and have plenty of reference books that tell me exactly what goes into what, where and how each grower and vintage is rated. The position of a wine buyer staring at a supermarket shelf and wanting to make a quick decision is no different to the punter at a racecourse. S/he will tend to go for a familiar sounding horse or one with a likeable name, whereas only the experienced punter will understand the race card and have looked at the form book prior to coming out.
Thirdly, what is all the fuss about, anyway ? The best wines from the Old World sell out in good vintages, year after year. If every bulk New World Chardonnay drinker started queuing up for en-primeur Cotes de Beaune, how would I ever get my hands on any ? What would happen to the price ? Would producers start releasing more “deuxième vins” to meet the excess in demand ? Would quality slip accordingly ? The prospects are too dreadful to contemplate. Better leave things as they are: those who wish to graduate from New World dross to Old Word finesse can do so in their own good time – if they have the palate and the pocket for it.
|Stuart’s response to J.F:
You make my point for me with great eloquence, JF. New World wine is beginner’s wine (or kids’ stuff, as I have called it in my column), while those who can be bothered to learn that Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes is oaky Chardonnay will have grown into their adult palates in style.
New World producers are making their wines in the style that their local terrior allows – which is not to say they make wines that are as good as Montrachet. There’s no reason to suggest that one group (old or new world) are less professional or committed. Hence, they each produce wines of at least the same ‘class’ in terms of what is possible given their raw materials.
|Stuart’s response to Bill:
Yes, I wouldn’t disagree with any of that.
Dear Stuart, I’d like to come back on some of your replies to my earlier response to the esay (see below). Your comments are in red: “I always take issue with the thought that unlike things cannot be compared with each other”. I’d say they can be compared against each other but should not be judged. “What would be the point of comparing things that were the same anyway?” Are you saying that all Puligny-Montrachets are the same and should not be compared to one another? “Of course, Australian and French wines are made in different styles, and the French are better”. In terms of absolute quality (complexity, structure and acidity) then I would have to agree with you. But wine is a commodity that is consumed in (hopefully) pleasurable circumstances. A great French wine does not always fit the circumstance and in those cases would not be better. What you state is a preference and not an absolute. Who is better Chanel or Versace? There is no definitive answer. Lastly, “Sitting on the fence in the middle of the road is not my style. Offered either a glass of Côte-Rôtie or a glass of Barossa Valley Shiraz at the end of a tasting, you may well opt for the former, in which you have made a comparison and declared a preference. Simple.” At the beginning of my reply to your article I stated “I appreciate and love the wines of the Old World as much as the New” I didn’t declare a preference as I like them both equally. If you define this as “sitting on the fence” then you are mistaken – it is merely an appreciation of both styles.
|Stuart’s response to David:
Unlike things should not be judged against each other? Why not? Have New Labour made it illegal? I think you should learn to trust your opinions more David: If you truly like New World/Old World equally, then great. Most people would find they prefer one to the other, when given a choice of two commodities. That may not necessarily mean disliking the less liked one, merely that one has managed to make a discriminating judgment between them.
Stuart has hit a nerve which I’m sure he intended. My main take on this is “the best wine is the one in my glass”, by which I mean that I celebrate the wide range of wine available. I have in my cellar wines from 5 old world countries and from 4 new world countries. Isn’t it wonderful? You may have similar or different ranges and enjoy different styles – great, next time we meet, convince me about your preferences. Stuart piece asks what we want to drink in place of the dullard wines he critised last time. Well, we all want something different, but with one thing in common: that it’s very good, well made, and with some class. I hope any list of wines people would come up with wouldn’t just include old world classics as Stuart suggests, but a broad range of the best from anywhere in the world
|Tom’s response to Russ:
My own cellar has a definite bias towards the Old World, but I have many bottles from Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as a few posh South Americans. I think what you are saying is that it is good to have an open mind, and approach each new wine without preconceptions. Whether one is a died-in-the-wool Old Worlder, or a fan of the New, I’d totally agree with you that you risk missing out if you don’t remain open-minded and willing to try new wine experiences when they come along.
Take a journalists jargon – generator (you know, flat-earther’s, old chestnut) a picture of Roger Moore and a position that the writer may not truly bleive in and what have you got? A wind up. I can read this sort of stuff from Julie Burchill in the Grauniad but on the wine-pages? Don’t make me laugh.
|Stuart’s response to Daron:
Dear Daron – Sorry to have wound you up. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I don’t really believe what I write. I leave that sort of dishonesty to those who make a living writing PR copy.
PS Roger Moore?
A very interesting article and although I am a wine merchant specialising in Australia, I appreciate and love the wines of the Old World as much as the New. The difference between us (apart from your more educated wine knowledge) is that I see the wines of France and Australia as two totally different realms. If I was to use an analogy (which I have used before on the UK Forum) it would be that Aussie/New World wines are the Ferrari’s, Porsche’ s and Dodge Vipers of this world, whilst the French/Old World wines are Bentleys, Merc and Jags. Why compare the two of them. They are totally different types of product (although Southern Italy and France is doing a damn good job of trying to emulate them) and should be treated in their own right and not compared side by side. The Old World will always have it’s precious AC’s although I expect they will be updated in the next 10 years or so. Australia will have it’s GI’s and both will continue making excellent wines along side the crap ones. As you well know, adding the name of the vineyard on the bottle adds a couple of dollars………. Keep up the good work.
|Stuart’s response to David:
David – Thank you for your comments, though I always take issue with the thought that unlike things cannot be compared with each other. What does the act of comparison consist in other than the relative evaluation of different commodities? What would be the point of comparing things that were the same anyway? Of course, Australian and French wines are made in different styles, and the French are better. Sitting on the fence in the middle of the road is not my style. Offered either a glass of Côte-Rôtie or a glass of Barossa Valley Shiraz at the end of a tasting, you may well opt for the former, in which you have made a comparison and declared a preference. Simple.
Oh dear Stuart, so near, and yet so far. The core of your argument is that “the appellation regulations are responsible for the highest achievements of world wine”. That assumption is wrong in my view; although the outcome has merit. The highest achievements of world wine were achieved before the appellation regulations came in. The achievement was in the recognition of the grape varieties and winemaking style that suited each portion of land. That’s the achievement, the appellation controls only codified what was already there.
I also disagree that the vine thrives best in poor soils and marginal climates. It does not thrive there at all, it thrives best in nicely irrigated warm climates like the Riverina. I expect what you are saying is that vines produce the best quality grapes in poor soils and marginal areas. A concept with which I have no problems. However your implication of the concept of suiting vine to soil is only successful in the new world is also wrong. It has reached in zenith in the old world, however the new world is catching up fast. There is far greater emphasis in the analysis of the climatic and geographic factors in premium vineyard placement than ever before. A local winery to me has pulled out their cabernet vines and planted shiraz, as this a patently more suited to the area.
Sub-standard wine is made everywhere, but just because lakes of it are made in the new world mean that the monopoly of quality rests with the old. You say “Clare Valley Riesling will never in a month of Sundays be Wehlener Sonnenuhr”, and neither should it, likewise A Chevalier-Montrachet will never match a Chablis Grand Cru, Les Clos, Raveneau, will in a month of Sundays either; because they are different expressions of the grape. And the sparkling sweet Cabernet/Champagne analogy has as much relevance as saying “…Or Johnny Walker Black ever keep them awake in Cognac?”. You may stylistically prefer the old world styles, however there are wines being made in the new world that, in their own style, reflect the same standards of excellence that has made the best of the old world earn the respect it deserves
|Stuart’s response to Murray:
“That assumption is wrong in my view; although the outcome has merit. The highest achievements of world wine were achieved before the appellation regulations came in. The achievement was in the recognition of the grape varieties and winemaking style that suited each portion of land. That’s the achievement, the appellation controls only codified what was already there”.
If the codification hadn’t been drawn up, however, the achievement would never have been systematised. I think we’re dancing on the head of a very small pin here.
“the new world is catching up fast. There is far greater emphasis in the analysis of the climatic and geographic factors in premium vineyard placement than ever before”.
Which is why those (not yourself clearly) who argue that the ‘new world’ is free of the stranglehold of the appellation concept are on a very sticky wicket.