Old World–New World Wine? It's Your Choice
By Don Merlot
The struggle continues as we look at wine today through the eyes of the past. There is a constant struggle on selling of wine versus what the wine a consumer wants to match with his food in today's digital world.
One thing for sure is that red, white or rosé is not homogenous within its own category. The old world basically rules were set before the 17th Century. The rules that were originally set are hard to break, yet today's modern oenologists and botanists are screaming to put their fingerprints on the new wines in particular the New World Wines and change the Old World wine's raison d'être.
Wine reviewers in the past were like the news readers of the old BBC of the past. I remember as I traveled I just heard the news without opinions, whereas today all news has the spin of the bloggers, reporters, or broadcasters. Wine and food information comes on blogs and newsletters and food shows. As a perennial wine student, I am most curious in finding the right wine for the food I am serving. I hesitate when someone is trying to sell me something, knowing the presenter is going to make money at my consumption and really puts his income above my threshold and gout.
Keeping in mind that sometimes I get stuck with selecting the wine for a party of four or more, I remind myself, again, my quest is to find out the red, white, or rosé that I like and matches the food I am about to consume and or share with family and friends. If my guests agree, great. If not, we all know it is my taste and if I am happy I accomplished that.
Today's owner-chefs are masters of the cuisine and are students of wine. So when you look at the wine list several points to consider are what makes me happy – the hedonism of wine - I have talked about tannins as in full bodied reds to light red wines or rosé's or the lack of tannin there off: in white wines. What strikes my palate and threshold may not be that of my brother or sister that I share my DNA or my cousin, or my best friends, because our wine threshold is like a finger print, none two are the same.
In the Old World ( France, Germany, Italy, and Spain ) when social wine was being defined in the 17th Century, a conversation at dinner may have gone like this, "If Claret is the queen of natural wine, Burgundy is the king: their places being taken in the other realm of the artificial by Madeira and Port. ' That being said in today's dinner conversation that would not be said. Pinot Noir from Burgundy is still revered, but to drink one of the giants from the Cote d'Or, Impossible! For 99.9 percent of the wine consuming population cannot drink a Cote d'Or Burgundy, unless you finance your diamond studded gold ROLEX: One bottle costs in the three digits at the release -– and seven to 12 years later when ready to drink, it is meant for the Nouveau Riche.
Way back when when I first started learning about wines, a bottle of Grands-Echezeaux 1959 was $15 at Tosi's in Stevensville , Michigan . Today if you serve that wine and the English critic Oz Clarke is at your table, he would say, "A Grand Cru capable of delicately scented plum-and-wood –smoke flavoured wine, which will go rich and chocolaty with age."
What is so different then and so different now; well then I could afford to have a Cote d'Or - Grand Cru -- once in a while, and today interdit! However let's not despair There are some very good Pinot Noirs out there today, but not in the same league as the France's Cote d'Or's Grand Cru.
Do not look for these Grand Cru gems in the restaurant's wine list. Remember that Beaujolais is Burgundy also, but not the Pinot Noir. It is the Gamay. They do have very good wines and the best come from the northern part of Beaujolais and you will recognize them with the term Cru Beaujolais. They are not as complex or as much tannin as Pinot Noir.
Wine traders and purveyors of old wine love the lore of wine. The Ducs of Burgundy – pinot noir and chardonnay; the Church. Imagine when I am drinking a CLOS DE VOUGEOT I am partaking in the wine of the Cistercian monks. This was the order that St. Bernard of Clairvaux energized to spread the spirit of the order all over Europe (much like the US fast food chains and opened up their outlets in every county in the USA ). Bernard created the order of the Knights Templar which lasted until a French King decided their wealth was his wealth and shut the Knights down and took as much of their wealth as he could. Today we worry about Dan Brown writes in his novel and using old lore, but life can be better than fiction.
It was these Cistercian Monks who refined Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the 9th Century. It was these Cistercians who pushed for purity in one red wine varietal (pinot noir) with one white wine varietal (Chardonnay) and no blends were permitted. Chardonnay, like its red counterpart grape can improve with age unlike most white wines. The clergy were better off holding wine and sending it around Europe before it matured too quickly.
So what does the New World say today? Go to Oregon , California where the Chardonnay grows well; go to Chile and New Zealand where climate, soil, geographically lined up and or similar to the Cote d'Or.
So we try to duplicate the formula of the old world, to create the New World . Yet, the Christian Gospels said, "And no one puts new wine in old wine skins, new wine must be put in fresh wine skins." Again a modern man interprets the old gospel, but many accept that you cannot teach old dogs new tricks.
There are a lot of new contemporaries that would want myth busting, who take pride in destroying the lore of yesteryear and the old world of wine & history. I loved it when the aforementioned Dan Brown came out with the Da Vinci Code and from every nook and cranny there appeared a documented expert to prove his novel ideas as spiritual heresy.
I will never forget my first trip to Burgundy when my French ami (Michel Julien) in 1970 took me to Vézelay in Chablis country. A true revelation of what this Bernard of Clairvaux really accomplished? He had the bones of Mary Magdalene in the Church, He commenced the 2nd Crusade, and he started the Knights Templar that was a religious order. And, in the wine sense he purified pinot noir and Chardonnay as the pure perfection of White and Red varietal wines over other varietals such as the lighter bodied and quick maturing gamay and pushed Chardonnay over the fast maturing light aligoté. What also struck me was that the road to Santiago de Campostella went from Vézelay to Spain : Santiago de Campostella – the resting place of St. James, Christ's brother and disciple and it passed right in front of the Basilica of Vézelay, Interesting n'est ce pas?
South of the Cote d"Or is the Cote Chalonnaise, and the Cote Mâconnais. The varietals to official Old World are still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay are allowed. . Further south the wines enjoy a longer summer and mature over longer period of time. We traveled through Beaujolais famous for its light red wines: Beaujolais Village and single Cru villages: St. Amour, Juliénas, Moulin-a-vent, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régine, Brouilly, and Cote de Brouilly.
I said to myself, I really enjoy learning all this wonderful information that I did not pick up in college history courses. We toured Burgundy and that is another story. But we ended up in Lyon and environs. I was selling ice makers and making calls on major restaurants in Burgundy and the Rhone . South of Lyon, I was walking around inhaling the culture, and I was faced with a sign that says Pontius Pilate ended up his career here in Vienne: Pontius Pilate has ended up here too.
Then 30 years later, there's Dan Brown. The protestation is too much. A novel built on lore.
Vienne was the home of La Pyramide's Chef de Cuisine – M. Pointe. Although he died in the late '50's, he remains an icon of French Cuisine. My early career was full of opportunity. Pernod SA was the importer-distributor of the ice makers and door openers for the French culinary industry. I covered Burgundy and Rhone in less than 48 hours.
From a wine perspective the great old world grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and from Beaujolais the Gamay and Aligote, and the Northern Rhone the Syrah and the Viognier.
Lore I find intriguing is the story of the Syrah grape. Greeks settled Marseille before the Roman Empire and are credited with starting the wine vineyards in the Provence district of France. So 600 years later when the Romans came in they too added to wine vineyards along the Rhone River . The varietal Syrah which is grown in the Northern Rhone has a story that a Knights Templar returned from his visit to the Holy Land with the grape called the syrah (Australia calls it Shiraz). Gaspard de Sterimberg (1225). He takes the credit for taking the syrah from Jerusalem to the Rhone valley. Today most grape DNA wine experts claim that the Roman grape was first and the origin of Syrah is to the Romans and not the Knight Templar.
So finding that perfect wine with food will always be my quest in today's restaurant environment is challenging. Experiencing the history of the grape and its application today with food is an on going process. The most important thing to recognize is that going forward is better than looking backwards. Burgundy and the Rhone are from the Old World . Very few of us will ever experience the wines of the old world. The wines of the new world are now available for sale at the local Chez de Vin.
If you are student as I am, then keep reading and testing. Wine Spectator and Food and Wine are popular publications that teach and document my learning experience. Wine tasting and testing with friends is the way to go. Make sure you follow that advice, Cogito, ergo sum – I think therefore I am. So when you are put on the spot, chose the wine you think is best with your palate and food. Don't choose what others may choose or like.
(Don Merlot, based in Florida, is the pen name of epicure Ron Alonzo).