Archive - January, 2010

Out with the Old and the New

Eliza the Cockney flower girl poses as a membe...
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Colonel Pickering: How do you do it, may I ask?

Henry Higgins: Simple phonetics. The science of speech. That’s my profession. Also my hobby. Anyone can spot an lrishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue … but I can place a man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.

from My Fair Lady (stage & screen)

An off-hand comment on twitter prompted me to think a little deeper about one of those ‘common knowledge’ aspects of the wine world, that there exists some sort of difference between the Old World and the New World. But what does that mean? More importantly, can it help?

It makes sense to group the sources of the wine we drink into easy to understand and separate groups – its shorthand for helping to make decisions. The simplest has always been “Old vs New” and by definition it is Old = Europe (& the Mediterranean) and New = the Rest of the World. But why?

It is meant to be about how old the wine making traditions are, of course, but even many ‘New’ countries have been making wine for around 300 years.

The question that prompted this soul searching was whether Japan should be considered an Old or New wine producer. China and Japan have very ancient wine traditions (of sorts), but they are not what we normally think of as “Old World”.

How does this Old & New dichotomy help anyway?

What it probably meant when it was first adopted was that the Old world made the wine we were used to drinking in the UK (and other wine drinking European countries) and the New world was the source of the ‘new’ wines; with ‘new’ ways of making them based more on science than tradition and ‘terroir’, and ‘new’ ways of marketing them.

If that is the case, it was probably true 30 years ago, but much has changed in that time. If you’ve ever heard stories about wine tasters that could identify a wine by region, grower, and vintage, (and possibly slope of vineyard, etc.) then many date back to this time. It is MUCH harder today. Henry Higgins would be hard pressed to apply his “scientific” approach to identifying the accent of a wine today!

Much of what was good about the ‘new’ science of winemaking has now been adopted in the ‘Old’ world wineries, and concepts such as terroir and artisan winemaking are making inroads in non European wine producers’ wineries too.

What it means is that the terms Old & New are not so much about WHERE in the world the wine is made any more. It makes more sense to think of them as HOW the wine is made.

It can mean that a wine from Europe is made in a ‘New World Style’ as some aspire to do, particularly in the South of France and Italy and parts of  Spain. It can mean that the history, sense of place, artisan wine making and vintage variation associated with ‘Old World Style’ traditional methods can also be applied to vineyards from beyond the borders of the Mediterranean.

In some ways this is justification rather than criticism for European  regions that apply ‘traditional’ rules strictly. You CAN see it as unnecessary restriction of wine making, stopping the more innovative wine makers from competing with those from other countries. However, you COULD also see it as a means of holding on to a style that differentiates the wines from all those in the rest of the world. Uniqueness sells … to a point.

The world has moved on. People, skills and techniques travel the world. I imagine Henry Higgins would struggle to replicate his neat parlour trick in today’s Covent Garden market, and the same is true of wine.

Old & New I think are still useful, but I think that they if they are used to describe styles rather than geographic boundaries, wine drinkers will find themselves opening the door to a whole new range of wines they might have otherwise dismissed.

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