Monday, January 4, 2010

This Was Not Supposed To Be the New World

Those of us who love balanced, complex, traditionally-proportioned, terroir-focused, affordable wines tend to flock to the Old World. This makes sense to a large degree. The history of wine production "over there" spans centuries and more, whereas winemaking in the New World goes back but a single century, and then usually not even that. So many of the most conscientious of winemakers here are still figuring out what works where.

Then there are the factors such as warmer climates, UC Davis's heat summation scale, critics' 100 point scales, a culture that frequently equates wine with wealth, and the influence of corporate agribusiness which set up a dynamic in the New World that favored — and usually still favors — the production of simple, manipulated, and/or ridiculously opulent and alcoholic wines. Heck, Randall Grahm goes so far as to say that "the manifest non-expression of terroir in our wines is the greatest source of anguish in my winemaking life."

On top of that, importers of European wine such as Dressner, Rosenthal, Theise, Chadderdon, De Maison, Headrick, et al offer us reliable portals to some of the most interesting wines on the planet, but to my knowledge, domestic producers have no such portals. So those who do make reasonably-scaled, subtle, complex, specific wines are at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to find their natural audience. This sets up a vicious circle: people like me reflexively seek out Old World traditionalists because — excepting producers such as Edmunds St. John, Renaissance, and The Eyrie Vineyards, to name a fistful — I find it difficult to find worthy New World traditionalists and I'm well skeptical of those who market their wines as balanced and terroir-specific. (Your "cool climate" pinot flirts with 15% alcohol? No thanks! Not even if your wine were $40 less than it is...)

All this was made more apparent to me over the holiday period, as I drank two New World wines that if not as specific and terroir-driven as I'd like still delivered far more than I expected.

Of course, I doubt that few of you would blame me for assuming that a 1996 sangiovese from Napa Valley — particularly one that my parents stored for years in a closet at room temperature — would be DOA in 2009, a swampy hot mess. Yet the 1996 Villa Helena Sangiovese Napa Valley was as fresh as a daisy, very well proportioned, and most remarkably, varietally correct. That is, it was quite light-colored, showed aromas of violets, and the cherry flavors had really nice lift. I'm not sure where its peppery spice came from, but in any case it went very well with a sausage and tomato-festooned pasta. What it lacked in complexity it made up for in elegance. Unfortunately, this winery is no longer, so I guess that's that.

The 2006 Yalumba Barossa Bush Vine Grenache was perhaps an even bigger surprise. It was fine and decent on the first night, obviously nicely made but not terribly interesting, yet it really improved on the second night, showing bright and dense cherry flavors, unconfected acidity, and long undercurrents of thyme, black pepper, fennel, and umami. I never thought I'd tell anyone that they could hold a four year old, $15 Barossa grenache — not even one made from 30 to 70 year old vines — for another five years so it shows even greater interest and complexity, but that's exactly what I'm telling you now.

One of my new year's resolutions is to more proactively research, track down, and drink well-proportioned New World wines. I want to break the vicious circle. Sure, it won't always be easy to find the good stuff at prices I can afford, but isn't that part of the fun?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Good luck finding well-proportioned New World wines. I'll stick with the Old World.