How Do You Measure Up As A Wine Lover?
by Tony Aspler
No, this is not a between-the-sheets Cosmo-type quiz that you fill in with your partner to see if you’re missing out on the sexual revolution. It’s a questionnaire that will help you decide whether you are New World or Old World when it comes to your wine preferences. There are no trick questions and no wrong answers, so don’t cheat by looking at the end.
1. Given the choice, which wine would you prefer to receive: a bottle of
a) Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand?
b) Pascal Jolivet Sancerre from the Loire?
c) neither, because you hate Sauvignon Blanc.
2. Do you automatically reach for a wine whose label states
a) the name of the grape?
b) the name of the vineyard or commune where the grapes were grown?
c) ignore the words and choose the label with flowers on it?
3. When it comes to closures, would you insist the wine to be
a) under screwcap?
b) under cork?
c) under $10?
4. When you see Shiraz on the label do you
a) grab it?
b)look for Syrah instead?
c) compare the two to see which has the higher alcohol?
5. How long do you keep a wine from the point of purchase to the point of pulling the cork?
a) at least a year depending on the wine
b) open it for dinner
c) drink it in the parking lot out of its brown paper bag
6. The smell of the stable in your glass makes you
a) shout ‘Brett!’
7. Do you believe that terroir is all important in the production of quality wines?
a) No, the ripeness of the fruit is all-important
b) Only the soil and microclimate can produce wines of individual character
c) Terroiristes should not be allowed in the country.
8. Do you prefer fruit-driven wines?
a) absolutely, the richer the extract the better
b) no, I prefer finesse and balance; wines that go well with food
c) Fruit-driven? If you’re driving you shouldn’t be drinking
9. Do you like the flavour of oak in white wine?
a) yes, as long as it’s balanced
b) I prefer whites aged in stainless steel
c) They put oak in white wine?
10. Do you like your wines to taste exactly the same from vintage to vintage?
a) yes, I have a flavour expectation; that’s why I buy that wine
b) I enjoy vintage variation; you never know what Nature will hand you
c) They make beer taste the same every year, so why can’t they do it with wine?
If your answer was (a) to every question you are an unrepentant New World wine fanatic. If you answered (b) to each question you probably hate Canadian wine and will only drink French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. If you answered (c) lie down in a dark room with a wet flannel over your eyes.
The current popularity of New World wines is based on their table-readiness (soft tannins, low acidity, forward, jammy fruit) and their uncomplicated labels (no foreign words that can cause sommeliers to roll their eyes when you try to pronounce them). You can pick up a bottle of California Merlot or Aussie Shiraz in the afternoon and have it for dinner the same night without feeling that the roof of your mouth has been sandpapered and Dionysus, the god of wine, will descent from a cloud and set about you with a vine stock.
Vintage variation in Europe can be extreme and Old World grapes rarely get as ripe as those in New World vineyards. Generally, the wines the French/Italians/Spanish produce are more austere, sinewy, higher in acidity and show more obvious tannins (think red Bordeaux, Chianti and anything made with Nebbiolo or Tempranillo). This means they demand cellaring to come into balance and we invariably drink them too young.
While many New World producers have aggressively embraced the concept of the screwcap, the French and the Italians are the proverbial tree-huggers clinging tenaciously to cork bark for all its faults.
But perhaps the biggest unspoken divide is on the question of Brettanomyses (the French call it ‘Dekkera Bruxellensis’) – a genus of yeast that can cause spoilage in wine. At low levels it gives the wine a barnyard note that is attractive to many tasters, especially in red Burgundy; but winemakers who studied at UC Davis in California are taught to avoid it at all costs.
Another point of division between the New World and the Old World is the European (mainly French) insistence on the importance of terroir – the qualities of a specific site that give the wine its unique flavour. The whole classification system of Bordeaux is based on the difference in soils of neighbouring vineyards. In Burgundy, the quality hierarchy is determined by the vineyard’s position on the slope or on the flat land.
The Australians, by comparison, think nothing of blending wines from different regions hundreds of miles apart.
On the subject of oak, California and Australia have in the past been profligate with the use of new barrels. The flavours of oak – vanilla, coconut, spice, smoke and toast – can overwhelm the true flavour of a wine. Like make-up, oak has to be applied sparingly, not with a trowel. The winemakers of Europe with generations of experience behind them know how to use oak to enhance the profile of their wines and not overwhelm it.
But ultimately, the choice of wine is what suits your palate. We are all conditioned to appreciate a style of wine with which we are most familiar. If you live in California the odds are you’ll prefer Cabernet Sauvignon to claret (red Bordeaux). If you were born in Burgundy any Pinot Noir not from the Côte d’Or will taste unconscionably sweet, fat and jammy.
The sad fact is that Old World/New World is no longer a geographic split but more a philosophical one. Winemakers in Europe are now making their wines fruitier and softer and labelling them by grape variety (take Languedoc, for example), while vintners in California and Australia are going for restraint and balance with lower pHs (more evident acidity) and less oak. Perhaps the polar extremes of weedy and saccharine will disappear and a global mid-Atlantic style will emerge.