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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Credit where credit is due
The debate between Old World and New World is endless. Too much alcohol vs. too thin, too fruit forward vs. too austere when young, American oak vs. French oak, blah blah blah. For the purpose of this post, I'll leave it at different strokes for different folks.

Now a striking difference between the camps of the New World champions vs. The Old is in whom (or what) is given the bulk of the credit for quality (or lack there of) of their respective wines. The 'Reader's Digest version' of where I'm going w/ this is:
  1. New World boosters generally praise the talent of the winemaker first and the land second. We'll refer to this as 'the individual approach.'
  2. Old World diehards throw around the term terroir in an almost religious fashion. Land is infinitely more important than any human effort. 'The earth approach.'

This isn't a debate, just a benign observation. Even if the area is Old World, a New World perspective (from a critic, perhaps) can ruffle some cuffs by lauding the winemaking abilities over the 'sense of place' where the grapes are grown. I wonder how it was received in Saint Emilion when the Wine Spectator began documenting the praise of Stephan Von Neipperg? A foreigner (from Germany, not an ounce of French blood in his family) coming into Bordeaux and 'revolutionizing' 4 properties: Canon La Gaffeliere, Clos de L'Oratoire, (grand cru vineyards that simply 'needed a little love') La Mondotte and Chateau D'Aiguilhe. The latter two are most interesting considering that La Mondotte sells for over 300 dollars (and, yikes, isn't a classified growth...hell it isn't even a Chateau!) and D'Aiguilhe is a prime example of a man's passion coaxing lovely wines from an inferior appellation, the Cotes de Castillion. Something tells me this really pisses off those old school Bordeaux loyalists considering that an outsider comes into Saint Emilion and turns the hiearchy and terroir 'cast system' upsidown by cranking out critically acclaimed wines at premium prices from relatively sub-par plots. He's also got a really thick German accent, which beautifully adds insult to injury. It's heresy I tell yah!

Then there is Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau de Valandraud, who essentially makes his wines out of a 'garage' and sells bottles for prices that rival first growth Bordeaux and fundamentally spit in the face of their centuries of 'nobility' and 'heritage.' How does he sell it? Very democratically of course, via hard work and praise from the most influential of American wine critics, Robert Parker.

These are isolated incidents and can't possibly match the widespread influence of the 'flying wine maker.' Wine consultants are hired by wineries from both worlds old and new in order to improve the quality of the wine. The likes of Michel Rolland, Stephane Derenoncourt, Carlo Ferrini and Luca d'Attoma, to name a few, are paid enormous sums of money to transform the wines from thousands of estates. Whatever the country, whatever the continent, these guys deliver the goods by 'single-handedly' ratcheting up the quality, regardless of the hallowed notions of terroir. Critics generally will mention whether or not a consultant 'oversees the quality' of a particular estate and, of course, echo their praise across the board.

Now I am not insinuating that the New World 'individual approach' thinks that wonderful wine can be made in waste disposal land, but the human element seems to star the lead role w/ the sense of terroir playing second fiddle.

The 'earth approach' has it's most firm roots in Burgundy. Terroir is everything, literally. Growers lay claim to parcels that are sometimes smaller than an acre. The 'cru system' of Burgundy does actually stem from quality of the site, which is necessary considering Burgundy is one of the most difficult areas to ripen grapes fully. Burgundy, collectively, kicked out Robert Parker from any perceived attempt to disrespect their cherished values of sacred soils. Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the famed Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, was quoting as saying "now we can go back to focusing on our terroir" upon Parker's Burgundy rejection.

Conservative, old fashioned vintners like Aubert de Montille will admit to having particular styles of wine-making, but generally pride themselves as 'doing as little as possible' in the vineyard. Letting mother nature take care of the vine and giving thanks to the bounty that the vintage provided. This makes sense, at least in Burgundy where vintages are truly erratic, vintners do not have the expectations that a Californian grower would have on having Mother Nature's full cooperation. It's also quite easy to have a minimalist approach when your vines are over 100 years old (so of course you don't need to do much crop thinning or canopy management as vines of that age will not bear excessive yields) and it doesn't hurt to have centuries of experience under your belt.

The last 'land-centric' observation I'll make is that terroir is a great defense mechanism, especially for the French. The French had just about everyone believe that the best wine in the world can only be made in, you guessed it, France. Why? Terroir of course! Only our terroir can make wines of this class, longevity and elegance because it comes from our vineyards and our soils. Bordeaux can't be made anywhere else in the world but Bordeaux. Great way to get an edge on the competition, don't you think?! The Paris tasting was a sham anyway, right?

I think New World extremists are arrogant to think that an individual can fundamentally transcend place. I think Old World elitists are condescending to believe that only their land can make the best wine, irrespective of the wine maker. It takes a great wine maker w/ great terroir to make great wine (and both need a GREAT amount of experience).

Philosophy class in college did help me understand one immutable fact. The most sensible answers lie in the middle. Perhaps as time progresses the Old and New will become closer together, perhaps forming somewhat of a 'hybrid world' where wine makers are greatly important and land is still paramount? Who knows, I'm still clinging to the hope that pigs will eventually be able to fly.


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