‘IS IT TIME FOR REAL WORLD FINE WINE, NOT JUST OLD WORLD AND NEW WORLD WINE?’
By Christine Marsiglio 22/11/16
Winner of The Family of Twelve Scholarship 2016, awarded to a Stage 2 MW student
The Greeks, Romans, Cistercian Monks, and other Old World Indo-European cultures have been cultivating the vine throughout Europe and parts of Asia for millennia. Today there are still some, from winemakers to consumers, who cling to the view that only with the passage of centuries can one truly understand the unique characteristics of a tract of land in order to produce its finest expression in a wine. According to the most literal expression of this view, only the Old World can produce truly great wines. Yet as we will explore, this view now seems poised to give way. Let us begin by recalling a time when New World wines were a novel concept.
When New World wines began to be consumed in traditional wine drinking countries, the producers were simply assumed to lack the requisite knowledge to produce fine wine. The result was that quality-focussed New World wine producers tried to create wines in homage to the great classic regions by replicating certain styles. This time and state of affairs could be considered the first wave of New World fine wine.
But in the words the great Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan: the times they are a-changin’. Thanks to more widespread sharing of knowledge through educational and cooperative initiatives and the increased trend towards experimentation, wine styles once considered to be facsimiles of their classic counterparts are now coming into their own. New World wines can be fine wine in their own right – not just as a merely acceptable homage to their Old World forebears – just perfectly balanced, distinctive, evocative, bona fide, fine wine.
The changes we see today in New World wine production are not without precedent. In fact they fit in nicely with the pattern observed so far, and can thus be best described as an evolution, not a revolution. The New World saw many examples of drastic changes in production over the past century – during this time in case after case an elevation in quality has followed rising production. Think of the production boom and subsequent quality rise in Chilean wine. Consider the post-Apartheid re-establishment of South African trade ties reinvigorating production and kicking off a quality renaissance. Australia, once primarily a bulk supplier to the USA and UK, now has a reputation for top wines and has diversified its export markets. And of course, New Zealand – having not only more than doubled production volume in the past 10 years, has also become the world leader in sustainability, with 94% of its vineyards certified sustainable, and a beacon for quality wines.
Today, such things as flying winemakers, increased travel and cultural exchange, and international wine educational institutions, have allowed for an ever-growing exchange of ideas. Because of this the best of the Old World practices are also now more readily available to producers everywhere. Meanwhile news of innovations and successes originating in the New World are dispersed quickly: it’s the best of both worlds!
Whilst many of the classic Old World regions have perfected what works for their site, they are now often tied to the rules since established. Meanwhile in the New World, exploration and experimentation continues and winemakers the world over are now acknowledging that those working in the New World enjoy a unique freedom to create and perfect their own. This awakening is ushering in the second wave of New World fine wine, in which knowledge and education is widely shared and experimentation to find the best expression of one’s own land is not only permitted, it’s encouraged.
During the first wave, it had become quite difficult to tell the difference between an Old World wine and a New World wine. Now, certain regions are starting to distinguish themselves with their own style. Adelaide Hills Chardonnay may be flintier or more reductive than a white Burgundy. Hawke’s Bay Syrah has a purity of fruit not seen in the Northern Rhône. New world fine wine no longer needs to imitate greatness: it is great!
Unlike the Greeks, Romans, and Cistercians, the winemakers of today have access to vast amounts of collective winemaking and viticulture knowledge. They also have access to, and compete in, global markets. They are very much a product and an exponent of the globalised modern world.
Yet paradoxically, perhaps partially as a reaction to the excesses of globalisation, there is a renewed focus on sustainability and locality. This is where the cooperation between wine families and wine associations comes in. It has allowed for the sharing of information, sourced globally and over time, collectively elevating the quality of wine, but it doesn’t overlook the human element that requires community and cooperation.
These groups are growing in number the world over. People now understand that quality is intrinsic to the vineyard and the winery. Some of the better known are Sangiovese per Amico in Montalcino, MOVI in Chile, and Family of Twelve in New Zealand.
The rise of wine associations may well be the future of promoting the idea of “real world fine wine”. If the whole world tries to replicate a certain set of accepted styles and focusses on the differences between Old World and New, then there will always be a schism between the two. However, never has there been a time in history where there is such willingness amongst both consumer and producer to accept that quality wine can come from anywhere. Now is the time to stop dividing wine into two categories, and to instead focus on what quality is, rather than where quality can come from.
Whilst Old World and New World are terms still widely used in today’s wine parlance, they have lost much of their relevance. The notion that the New World can only emulate the original has been debunked. We are at the beginning of the second age for New World wines, an age of “real world fine wine”. It promises to increase the diversity of wine styles, and that’s a good thing for producers and consumers alike. Long may it reign!