Europe vs. The New World and Unique Grapes
By John Szabo with notes from Sara d’Amato and David Lawrason
John Szabo, MS
This week’s report considers the old world-new world divide in the wine universe, the main feature of the June 21st VINTAGES release. Where do these terms come from, and what exactly do they mean? On which side of the divide do you fall? We’ll also take a look at unique grapes – the ones you’ve probably never heard of, but are well worth discovering. Get out of the three-grape drinking rut with these recommendations and do your part to promote stylistic and genetic diversity.
Read on or jump straight to the Buyers’ Guide selections.
Old World vs. New World
The June 21st VINTAGES Release pits Europe, or the “old world”, against the “new world” of wine. There is, of course, no official definition to the terms old and new world as applied to wine. It’s rather a simplistic way of dividing up the world between the traditional winemaking countries of Europe (and the Middle East and the Caucasus, including the very cradle of wine in Georgia and Armenia), and pretty much everywhere else.
Recent archeological evidence points to some seven or eight thousand years of winemaking history in Armenia and Georgia, and four thousand or more in Greece. Wine production developed in western Europe some three thousand or so years ago thanks to the busy merchant Phoenicians (an Eastern Mediterranean civilization) plying water trade routes all the way to Jerez in Southern Spain, the Etruscans, native central Italians who were making wine long before the Romans moved north, and the Celts who made good and proper use of native grapevines in central Europe. The Greeks did their part to spread viticulture and winemaking knowledge into southern Europe, and then later, as Rome conquered the known western world, the grapevine and wine culture followed in earnest, all the way up to the limit of viable viticulture in places like Champagne, the Loire Valley and the Mosel in Germany. This is the old world of wine.
The new world, on the other hand, refers to those parts of the planet that were colonized by Europeans in the post-Columbus era. European settlers brought with them the comforts of home, including plants and animals, in order to reproduce their diet from back home, and the grapevine was invariably among their exports. Heroic efforts were often required to grow grapes, and not all vineyards flourished. Early efforts in the Caribbean, parts of Mexico and Paraguay failed miserably, while the most suitable regions, the ones we’re familiar with today, would eventually come to dominate.
It’s worth noting that despite the “new” qualification, many of these former colonies have now been making wine for centuries, like the Mexican highlands since the early 1500s, Peru, Chile and Argentina since the mid 1500s, South Africa since 1659, California since the establishment of Franciscan missions in 1779, and Australia since the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 (I also recently discovered that a wine was made in Canada in 1669, but that was more of a one-off, our time would come a bit later).
In fact, some of the most celebrated wine regions in the old world were developed much later than those in the new world, such as the Médoc area of Bordeaux, drained by Dutch engineers in 1599, or much more recently the coastal Maremma area of Tuscany, former marshlands that only became viable for viticulture in the 1930s thanks to Mussolini’s anti-malarial policy and the subsequent draining of the land.
Today, aside from a mere geographical distinction, the terms old world and new world have also come to represent broad stylistic differences between wines produced in their respective worlds. A new world wine, to use a very broad brush, features riper and bolder fruit flavours, higher alcohol and lower acidity, and very often more wood flavour than its European counterpart. An old world wine, on the other hand, is lighter, leaner, less fruity and more earthy, and often much more acid-driven and harder (more tannic) than a new world wine.
Such distinctions have featured in discussions among wine professionals since at least the dawn of the modern era of winemaking, which I’d peg somewhat arbitrarily around the mid nineteen seventies. This is the period during which countries outside of Europe began to make wine that challenged the best of what the old world had to offer, becoming genuine commercial competitors and thus necessary to talk about.
And there was a time when the old world/new world style description rang pretty much true. That most new world wine regions are warmer, drier and sunnier than those in the old world naturally led to the style differences that became stereotypes. These days, of course, such a simplistic view doesn’t even begin to accurately describe the wines of either world. There are plenty of “new world” style wines made in the old, and vice versa. The wines of Niagara are far more European in style, for example, than new world, even if we’re definitely lopped in with new world wine regions. Technology, wine additives, climate change and flying winemakers have done much to erode such crude differences.
And yet the distinction persists, as all good stereotypes do, and you’ll come across the terms in plenty of wine reviews, even on the blind tasting grid of the Court of Master Sommeliers. After all, without some sort of contextual generalization, it’s very hard to say anything meaningful about a wine. I personally still find the distinction useful in order to convey the general “feel” of the wine: is it in essence more fruity or stony/earthy? More acid or more alcoholic? Soft and plush or firm and puckering? But I’m careful to throw in the term “style” after new or old world, since geography is less and less meaningful.
Curiously enough, most consumers and even wine professionals have a leaning to one world or another. It’s possible to change “world” style preference over the course of your wine-drinking lifetime, but it’s exceedingly rare to run across someone who loves both style categories equally at the same time. So what’s your preference? Are you old or new world?
For the June 21st release I’ve paid a little homage to wines grown in the new world, the colonial upstarts and I recommend seven excellent wines. In part it’s because the new world selections were better quality in my view than their old world counterparts proposed by the LCBO (new world conspiracy?). But it’s also because I naturally tend to recommend wines from the old country, so it’s time to level the scales. You’ll find, however, that my picks give a nod back to the old world, at least stylistically. I guess I just gave away my world preference.
The other theme of the release is grapes that are “unique”, another nebulous category. Yet it’s easy to find yourself in a rut, drinking wines made from the same very small handful of grapes over and over. Pre-phylloxera there were countless thousands of varieties planted throughout the world. Today that number has been significantly reduced. Some grapes, to be sure, disappeared for good reason – they made poor quality and/or unreliable wine. But there’s no doubt we lost a massive amount of genetic diversity, and hence potential diversity of wine styles, which is lamentable.
Fortunately there’s a new sport in variety-rich countries like Portugal, Italy and Greece: rediscovering old grapes and propagating them before they disappear. And the new world, in an effort to rise above the crowded battlefield of cabernet and chardonnay and offer something unique (and perhaps better suited), has picked up the relay and is planting plenty of obscure but tasty varieties. I say we should do our part to encourage these vinous archeologists and vanguardists by at least giving their obscure grapes a try, lest we lose even more diversity. I’ve picked out a quartet that is worth a look, comparing them to a grape/style with which you’ll likely be more familiar so it isn’t so scary.
Buyers’ Guide Selections – the Stars Align
Norman Hardie 2012 Riesling, Ontario, Canada ($21.00). John Szabo – A lovely, open and honeyed interpretation of riesling from Hardie, with off-dry but crisp palate, well balanced and terrific length, firm and stony-dry finish. Best 2014-2020. Sara d’Amato – Riesling lovers take note! This captivating assemblage of 70% Niagara and 30% County fruit and delivers the best of both terroirs. Nervy and simmering with zesty fruit, the wine is texturally both lush and vibrant.
Ken Forrester 2012 Reserve Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($17.95). John Szabo – This wine seems to always make it onto my best buys list, and it’s hard to imagine stuffing more character into an $18 wine. This is intense and exceptionally mineral with genuine old vine (40 year old, unirrigated) complexity and depth, perfectly suited to fans of full-bodied, characterful wines at give away prices. Best 2014-2020. David Lawrason – There is a growing buzz about Cape chenin and this good value provides useful schooling. Not flamboyant but structured, even and classy from a winery that is on a mission to gain respect for this variety. And it ages. I recently had a very impressive 2006.
Erste & Neue 2012 Leuchtenburg Kalterersee Classico Superiore, Südtirol-Alto Adige, Italy ($19.95). John Szabo – The 1986 merger of the Erste (“first”) wine co-operative (founded in 1900) with the Neue (“new”) wine co-operative (founded in 1925) in the village of Kaltern means that the winery has been perfecting their version of the local vernatsch variety (aka trollinger or schiava, the most planted red grape in Alto Adige) for some time. Don’t be fooled by the pale colour – this packs quite a punch of flavour ranging from tart red mountain fruit to dark spice and cranberry. As such, this falls squarely into the zesty red wine category – think of gamay, and serve with a light chill with quail or duck for maximum effect. Best 2014-2018. Sara d’Amato – Certainly a departure from your everyday red, this northern Italian beauty is made from the local vernatsch variety which is typically light, fruity and offering moderate acidity. Easy to appreciate and versatile with food, the wine is fresh, elegant, and brimming with authentic flavours of wild berry fruit.
Barone Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva 2009, DOCG, Tuscany, Italy ($24.95). Sara d’Amato – This widely appealing Chianti Classico from one of Italy’s oldest wineries benefits from the prowess of esteemed enologist Carlo Ferrini. The blend is made up of 80% sangiovese with a balance of merlot and cabernet franc giving the blend a boost of concentration. Simply put, a stunning Classico Riserva sure to impress your guests. David Lawrason – The 2010 vintage in Europe continues to impress. This is compact, complex, well integrate and even with classic, edgy Chianti sangiovese character, even though it contains up to 20% cabernet and merlot. Well priced for the quality delivered.
Szabo’s Smart Buys: The New World vs. Europe
Bachelder 2011 Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($44.95). This is an excellent, if ever-changing and evolving wine (I’ve tasted it several times now, and at each turn it reveals a different character, as natural and living wines should). It’s very much respectful of the Burgundian tradition from which Bachelder takes his cues – throw this in a line of top Côte de Beaune whites and you’ll be surprised how well it performs. Best 2014-2021.
Dog Point 2011 Pinot Noir Marlborough, New Zealand ($48.95). Dog Point is one of my reference producers from Marlborough, and indeed New Zealand, producing both sauvignons and pinot noirs far above the quality mean. I love this vivid, translucent pinot with its crackling acids and rich, spicy red and dark fruit. Hold off for another 2-4 years for maximum enjoyment, allowing the wood notes to fully integrate. Best 2016-2023.
Clos Du Val 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley USA ($39.95). The relatively cool 2010 growing season, coupled with Clos du Val’s old world-leaning style yielded an intriguingly green and zesty, fire-roasted vegetal scented Napa cabernet, succulent on the palate with long, umami-laden finish. This will provide pleasure over the mid term for fans of more reserved, old world style reds. Best 2014-2010.
Tar & Roses 2013 Pinot Grigio, Central Victoria, Australia ($19.95). This is made with some skin contact, resulting in a pale pinkish tinge – from sight alone this could be mistaken for a Provençal rosé. The flavour profile, too, bears some resemblance: fruity and delicate, raspberry, strawberry, citrus and apple-scented. A well made, characterful wine all around, fairly priced.
Cape Point Vineyards 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Cape Point, South Africa ($15.95). With vineyards on the narrow Cape Peninsula and cooling influence from both the Atlantic and False Bay, this is an ideal terroir for bright and zesty sauvignon Blanc, which Cape Point Vineyards has made into a house specialty. This is a tremendous value, balanced and minerally, with added complexity from a splash of semillon and a small percentage of barrel-fermented sauvignon. A wine to be purchased by the case at this price.
Szabo’s Smart Buys: Unique Grapes
Domaine Karydas 2009 Xinomavro, Naoussa Greece ($24.00) This xinomavro from the Macedonian appellation of Naoussa is very much worth a detour for fans of savoury old world reds – think of Italy: Piedmontese nebbiolo or Tuscan sangiovese, and you’re in the right style range. It’s mid weight, succulent and firm, with fine-grained tannic structure and saliva inducing acids, not to mention loads of umami. Best 2014-2020.
Alpha Estate 2012 Axia Malagouzia, Florina Greece, ($15.95) This hails from one of Greece’s cooler regions, northwest over the Mountains from Naoussa. Malagouzia will appeal to fans of generously proportioned, aromatic whites like viognier, with a little more of a cool climate, fresh acid kick. The 2013 is the best yet from Alpha Estate, offering all of the lovely rich, ripe fruit in the tropical spectrum that the variety is capable of, on a generous frame.
Livia 2012 Feteasca Regala, Cotesti, Romania ($14.95) Feteasca Regala (aka Kiralyleánka) grows mainly in Transylvania, Moldavia, Moldova and Hungary, and produces and soft, semi-aromatic white wine. This is a pleasant sipper, clean, fresh and delicate, with a whiff of citrus and spring flowers, light-mid-weight palate, gentle acids, and the merest impression of sweetness. Think of softer style pinot gris/grigio.
David Lawrason’s Picks
Man Family Wines 2012 Bosstok Pinotage, Coastal Region, South Africa ($13.95) – Pinotage is particular to South Africa – a hybrid pinot noir/cinsault crossing that in my mind has not been all that successful despite the sentimental attachment it holds for Cape wine fans. It’s interpretation by winemakers his all over the map. This however gets a vote of confidence; great value, rich yet still piquant red with quality far outstripping its price.
Paolo Conterno 2009 Riva Del Bric Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($42.95) – This is a fine, maturing Barolo. Not a true classic perhaps because the hotter 2009 vintages has lowered acidity, but on the other hand it has created a more approachable style that in the hands of an excellent producer delivers authentic Barolo character.
Sara d’Amato’s Picks
Vincent Raimbault 2012 Bel Air Vouvray, AC, Loire, France ($18.95) This dry Vouvray is love at first sip and although would be a treat to enjoy on its own, it has the ability to pair with substantial foods such as a creamy gratin Dauphinoise or roast poultry. Traditional, wildly complex and exceedingly satisfying.
La Tour Coste 20120 La Combe Saint Joseph, Rhone, France ($28.95) La Tour Coste is a relatively new project by celebrated winemaker Stephan Vedeau who is best known for his successful Le Ferme du Mont series from the Cotes du Rhone. The label is a step above in terms of complexity, concentration and class and exhibits a very authentic, natural feel – a superb expression of the purity of northern Rhone syrah.
Zig Zag Zin 2011 Zinfandel, Mendocino County, California, USA ($19.95). A naked zinfandel, if you will, this open and revealing wine is wonderfully approachable and stripped of heavy oak and sweetness. It boasts a welcome purity of fruit and although it is lighter in weight it is certainly not light in complexity. A sophisticated zinfandel that even fans of pinot noir will find engaging.
Vinecol 2013 Organic Bonarda, Mendoza, Argentina ($14.95). Although the varietal may be relatively unknown to us in Ontario, bornarda has been Argentina’s most widely planted grape for some time and has only been recently supplanted by malbec. Depending on the age of the vines, wines made from this prolific varietal can range between light and full bodied, fruity and tannic. This example boasts a wildly compelling nose with huge perfumed aromatics and a lush, sultry palate with a perfectly balanced acidity. Immensely satisfying for the price.
Best Ontario Sommelier Competition
Have you ever been served by an amazing Sommelier? Ever wonder what it takes to be the BEST Sommelier in the Province? Find out June 22 at the BEST ONTARIO SOMMELIER COMPETITION. Attending the competition is free. Watch as the three finalists are put through their paces with Decanting Service, Champagne Service, Food and Wine Pairing, and Blind Tasting. Following the competition is a walk-around wine tasting ($5) featuring international and Ontario wines; all proceeds go to help the winning Sommelier with travel expenses to the Americas competition (Mendoza, Argentina 2015) and hopefully the Worlds (2016).
The Gala Dinner ($150) includes a silent auction, cocktail reception and a four course dinner prepared by Oliver and Bonacini, with, of course, tons of wine, and an after party.
This event only takes place once every two years.
When: June 22, 2014
Where: Arcadian Court, Toronto
Wine tasting 3:00-5:00
Cocktail Reception 5:00-7:00
Dinner 7:00-10:00, After Party 10:00 -
Purchase Tickets here
Upcoming Court of Master Sommelier Courses
Toronto (Level I & II), August 23-25th, The Air Canada Centre
Level I ($525 US) Introductory Course & Exam. Includes a fast paced review for a day and a half with a theory exam at the end of the second day. Candidates should have been employed in wine service for a minimum of three years, although this is not mandatory.
Level II ($325 US)Certified Sommelier Exam, a one-day exam only with no classroom work.
Register for courses here
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
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