Tuesday, May 15, 2007
First, the New World
Understandably, a lot of my customers drink mostly New World wines - Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, Washington and especially California. Frankly, so do I. It makes sense. These wines are readily available (duh, we live in the New World) and don't carry some of the high prices as Old World wines like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne. Well, except for California.
Another reason why New World wines are popular: fruit, fruit and more fruit. The New World, for the most part (sorry, New Zealand), is blessed with abundant sun. Sun means more photosynthesis and photosynthesis means riper wine. Riper grapes usually yield more sugar, which in dry wines, renders wines with lots of fruit flavors. People like fruit. With cheaper, more available, riper wines around it makes complete sense for American wine drinkers to prefer New World wines.
A very tough question remains, however:
Are American drinkers missing out by not drinking Old World wines?
Well, I'm just one guy, but I think the answer is a very loud, resounding, perfectly certain, YES.
I want to operate on the theory that I'm right. I'll admit I might not be, but indulge me. This is certainly a debatable question, but I want to operate on this assumption because I want to skip the part of the argument where I detail why Americans are missing out. I know this is a major no-no in rational argument, but there's something more important at stake: Why.
Why do Americans shun Old World wines? Is it just convenience? Money? Taste? I don't think so. Americans are pragmatic folk. This is often the thing that irritaties SO many people from other countries and cultures about us. We aren't interested in philosophical difference, or theoretical propositions or consensus. We want things to be clear, elegant and simple. We're all about parsimony.
If that's true, then why the heck don't we drink wines from the Old World? Why not French or Italian or Spanish? Well, I attribute it to what I call "The Difference."
The Difference is simple. New World wines are big, rich, full-bodied, monsters of the wine world. Even Pinot Noir, known the world 'round as one of the most elegant, subtle, challenging and aromatic wines, sometimes pours out of the glass like Petite Sirah and tastes like Syrah in the New World.
With this palate whacking, no-holds-barred, Nietzschean Ubermensch kind of wine, you aren't required to have food with them. You can slide the cork out of the bottle, pour a glass and off you go, like you're barrelling down I-35 at 115 mph in a custom-built, Alpine white painted 1970 Dodge Challenger. The biggest speedbump on the California wine expressway may be a 30 minute decanting stop.
Food with these wines? Who needs food? Liquid lunch!
If you've been to Europe, you know The Difference. In the Old World if you order a glass of wine, even at a bar, you never get just a glass of wine. You'll almost always get something to eat with your vino. It might be a locally made pastry like the caneles you get in Bordeaux or a plate of bread and olive oil in Tuscany or sausages, bread and mustard in Germany. The exception will be dessert wines, and even in many cases, you'll have dessert with your dessert wine.
This is The Difference: because food and wine are inseparable in the Old World, the wines are built to go with food.
At this point, you may be asking yourself - how do you do that?
First, they will have higher levels of acidity. Acidity will cut through rich, creamy, fatty food like a hot knife through butter. That's why you like Sauvignon Blanc with seafood. The high level of acid can cut through even the biggest of dishes. The same principle applies to reds as well.
Second, Old World wines will emphasize earthy flavors more than anything you find in the New World. Northern Rhone Syrah, blends from the Languedoc region of France, Chianti and pretty much any Spanish wine you try will have a pronounced earthy component. Many foods easily match this earthiness - root vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, smoked and grilled meats to name just a few.
This earthiness can be expressed in any number of flavors - green pepper, spices, cigar box, saddle leather, herbs, stones, minerals, and even chocolate. If any of these ideas appeal to you, the Old World wines should be the first wines you seek.
Lastly, Old World wine producers aren't afraid of tannins. Tannins are a necessary part of red wine - they provide a frame around which you drape the rest of the wine's elements: fruit, acid, oak and alcohol. With certain foods like game, beef, lamb and stinky cheese, there's a real synergy between the bitterness of some tannin that works. Know why you like Cabernet Sauvignon with your Ribeye? Tannins.
Tannins can cause an astringency people don't care for, but this doesn't have anything to do with the amount of tannin, so much as the way the winemaker has integrated the tannins into the wine. Oak breaks down tannin. So does long, slow exposure to oxygen during the aging process. Winemakers who are careful about these processes can creat wines which are big and tannic but also achingly smooth.
Don't confuse tannins with with the "dryness" of wines. Dry is just the opposite of sweet and nothing more. See here if you are confused about "dry"wine and here if you want to know more about tannins.
The more experienced of you wine fanatics might well counter everything I'm saying with a curt "Hey! Wait a minute! Isn't the real reason why Old World wines are more acidic, earthier and tannic than New World wines is that the climate isn't right for making ultra-ripe, jammy wines?"
Of course it is. Even in the age of computer-model assisted winemaking techniques we have today, one thing remains as true as it did when monks were the only people literate enough to make wine - a winemaker cannot change the weather. No matter where you are or who you are, you can't change the weather. You have to dance with the one that brung ya.
Vive la Difference
What's the point of all this? Well, there are three, actually.
First, if you're a California or Aussie wine junkie and have tried a few Old World wines and just haven't gotten the hang of it, I hope you have a better understanding why you don't like them. If you're used to California Pinot Noir, Burgundy might seem thin, airy and a might too tart. My advice? Seek steak. You might never go back to Golden State Cab. Even if you do, you might have a new wine to turn to in case you want to mix things up.
Second, don't misunderstand me - these are generalizations about New and Old World wines. Think there aren't any acidic, earthy, tannic New World wines? Try a young Petite Sirah. Think the Old World doesn't have any fruit bombs? Try an Amarone.
Third, I've found that most customers play it safe. They only get what they know will work. Take some risk! Jump off that cliff just because someone else did! (I only mean that metaphorically - don't go all "Jackass" on me).
I know somebody who always says goodbye by saying "Be good!"
My response? Where's the fun in that?