Old World, New World

“Old world, new world, I know nothing, but I’ll keep listening.” 

Comparing Old World with New World is one of the favourite pastimes of wine lovers. You know the scenario: a couple of glasses of chardonnay with dinner… which is Burgundy and which is New World?

And later: being New World, is it Australia, New Zealand or USA? Et cetera.

But it’s getting more and more difficult to identify the classics of the Old World. Picking a red Burgundy from a pinot noir produced in Australia, New Zealand or Oregon isn’t as simple as it once was. This is proven year after year at Stonier’s annual SIPNOT event, which is an analytical tasting of 12 international pinot noirs. At the last event, a couple of Oregon pinots, Cristom Jessie Vineyard (tastings) and Chehalem Ridgecrest Vineyard (both 2008 tasting) set the cat among the pigeons – they could have been either Old or New World – while Tollot-Beaut ’08 Corton Bressandes was difficult to pick as a Burgundy. Two of the other Burgundies were correctly identifiable by cynics only because of their sulfide and/or brettanomyces faults, while several Aussies were identified because of their cleanliness and bright, if simplistic, fruitiness. But genuine terroir seemed to be largely missing-in-action. The New World selection easily trumped the Burgundy foursome, the one exception being Armand Rousseau ’08 Clos de la Roche (tastings), which had length, finesse, charm and fascination. But so it should at $250 – by far the dearest wine in the line-up.

At a marsanne comparison earlier in the year between Australia’s Tahbilk (tastings) and France’s Chapoutier (tastings), the differences were much more marked. Everything about the way these wines were grown, vinified, matured and even packaged was different, and they tasted like cheese and chalk. And did I mention the variance in their prices?

Tahbilk $15 for the 2010 regular bottling and $36 for the 1927 Vines 2002 vintage (tastings); Chapoutier (wait for it) $119 for Chante Alouette to $254 for De l’Oree and $292 for Le Meal – all 2008 Ermitages.

The Chapoutiers were great wines, loaded with richness and personality; oxidative, honied, multi-faceted, full-bodied and fascinating. The Tahbilks were excellent modern white wines, certainly under-priced, and full of fruit and charm, but not in the same league as the Ermitages for complexity and fascination. And different… one could scarcely believe they were made from the same grape.

More recently, a workshop on semillon/sauvignon blanc (AKA white Bordeaux blends) for the winemakers of New England was another eye-opener. We started the tasting with a very inexpensive and extremely good Aussie, a local New England wine – 2010 Merilba Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc ($20 tastings). This was an exemplary Aussie SSB: very fresh and vital, brilliantly fruity and varietal; clean, dry and tangy. A superbly made, delicious but essentially simple wine, and a wine that never pretended to be anything more than that.

We tasted through Mount Mary Triolet 2008 (tastings OK, but disappointing at $85-$95); Grosset 2010 ($31-$35 tastings; a bit forward and clumsy); Crawford River 2008 ($23-$26 tastings; rather green and sweet) and the best of the locals, Sorrenberg 2010 ($31-$37 tastings; a lovely and quite complex, genuine white Bordeaux style).

The fancy-pants French imports were Chateau de Fieuzal Blanc Pessac-Leognan 2007 ($125-$138 tastings) and Clos Floridene Blanc Graves 2009 ($55-$60 tastings). These were a class apart. The Floridene, produced by the renowned Denis Dubourdieu, was a wonderfully layered, vanilla, honey and nutty wine of delicious flavour which made the most of its high-quality barrels, a wine you were compelled to return to again and again. It was the voted the best value of the seven wines, but it wasn’t much above the Sorrenberg, it must be said. The Fieuzal started badly, with the first bottle terminally TCA-affected ($138 worth of sink rinse) while the second bottle was superb, but took a while to open up. It aired to reveal a layered and fascinating almond/marzipan character and finished equal top with the Floridene on my scoresheet, the perfume haunting the empty glass long after the liquid had gone.

The conclusion from all of these disparate experiences? Australia’s best wines are of very high quality and some of them even have tremendous character and complexity. But there is something extra in the world’s most renowned, most sought-after, most expensive wines across many regions and grape varieties. It is something elusive, mysterious, even transcendental. And for that, people who want to be seduced and fascinated by wine are prepared to pay a lot more money.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, Feb-Mar 2012.


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