In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi discusses the differences between Old World and New World wine. Is one better than the other? Are you drinking the wrong one? Or do both have their own merits?
At some basic level, all wine-making is a collaboration between nature and man. You couldn’t make wine without grapes and all fruit is a product of nature. But equally, a bunch of grapes is not the same as a bottle of wine. To make good wine from the grapes, you need a winemaker who knows how to extract the best flavor.
It is a slight oversimplification to say that the battle between New World (America, New Zealand, Australia etc.) winemakers and those from the Old World (Italy, Germany but mainly France) is a battle about what is more important: nature or man.
It is an oversimplification because everybody who makes wine accepts that the quality of the grapes is paramount. And a great wine-maker is a great wine-maker, regardless of whether he is making wine in Burgundy or in California.
But it is true that the Old World regards nature as being more important than the human factor whereas the New World makes more of the role of the winemaker and makes less of a fuss about nature.
The role of nature is best captured by the French word ‘terroir’. This does not just refer to the soil where the grapes are grown (though that is the most important component) but to micro-climate, the amount of sun the vines get, etc.
The French view is that great wine can only come from great terroir. And so the great vineyards have not changed that much over the centuries. The greatest wines of Bordeaux, for instance, come from the same vineyards today that they did as far back as 300 years ago.
It is a measure of the French obsession with a terroir that they still quote the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wine. This was a system of arranging wines into classes (“first growth”, “second growth” etc.) based, not on some subjective criterion but, on the prices, they commanded in the middle of the 19th Century. The first growths from 1855 are still the most expensive wines in Bordeaux and are treated with respect and awe. (The original First Growths were Latour, Lafite, Margaux, and Haut-Brion. In 1973, the powerful Baron Philippe Rothschild lobbied the French government to have his Mouton promoted from second growth to first).
The 1855 classification strikes many people as odd. How can a vineyard which is down the road from a First Growth be rated much lower? Shouldn’t they have the same terroir? No, say the French, the terroir varies from square foot to square foot.
In Burgundy, the great rival to Bordeaux as France’s premier wine producing region, terroir is even more important. While Bordeaux vineyards can be large, most Burgundy growers only have small parcels of land. And even within those parcels, they have micro-terroir. At first, I used to be vaguely sceptical when Burgundy growers would say things like “the first row of vines produces much better wine than the third row” but over time, I have come to accept that there is something to these distinctions.
The French are less worried about grape varieties than producers in other countries. Nearly all red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir while nearly all the white is made from Chardonnay. So when you tell a great Burgundy producer that he is making ‘Chardonnay’, he usually looks at you with faint contempt. As Aubert de Villaine, the legendary proprietor of Domaine Romanee Conti, which produces some of the world’s greatest (and certainly, most expensive) wines says, the grape is not important. It is only a means of conveying the terroir of the vineyard.
You can be sniffy about these statements. But you only have to taste the wines to realize how irrelevant the grape is in Burgundy, at least compared to the terroir. Take the white wines of Burgundy, easily the greatest whites of all. A wine from say, Chablis, will taste nothing like a Meursault. And the Meursault will taste different from Puligny Montrachet. The villages that these wines come from are only a few miles from each other. But the terroir is so important that it yields completely different wines from exactly the same grape.
Last week, at a dinner in Singapore I listened to Aubert de Villaine tell us about the wines of Romanee Conti. The estate is relatively small so all the vineyards are near each other. These tiny vineyards (usually about three to six hectares in size) yield small productions. And yet the wines are distinctive and each has a character of its own.
At the dinner, we drank Romanee Saint-Vivant (they produce 1500 cases a year), Echezeaux (1300 cases), La Tache (1800 cases) and the eponymous Romanee Conti (only 450 cases).
How, I kept asking myself, could an estate of 28 hectares produce so many distinctive wines from the same grapes, each of which was the best in its class?
As Domaine Romanee Conti (or DRC as it is often referred to) uses no tricks in its cellars, the answer has to be that it is located on what must be the best terroir in the world. In the true French tradition, the vineyards have had a reputation for excellence dating back to the 12th Century.
While great terroir will always yield great wine, even the French will not deny that mediocre to good vineyards can be made to turn out first-rate wine if a talented winemaker puts his mind to it. The wine-maker will typically, check how the vineyards is irrigated, alter the pruning of the vines, increase the space between the bushes and pick the grapes when they are at their best etc. And he will also introduce a few refinements to the process of fermenting the grapes.
In truth, there are few wines that cannot be improved by a great wine-maker. This is why many of the great Chateau-owners of Bordeaux have bought lesser vineyards and put their wine-making teams to work. Usually, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of the wines. (Often it is just a question of investment in new vats etc. in the winery.)
Many New World wine-makers call the French ‘terrroirists’ because some (mainly American) wine experts believe that the whole notion of terroir is predicated on the assumption that you can’t make great wine unless you have an ancient vineyard that is noted for its terroir. And, almost by definition, New World wine-makers do not have that advantage.
Even in the Old World, the terroir argument can be challenged. Italy re-launched itself as a world-class wine producer on the basis of the so-called Super Tuscans. These were wines that merged Italian grapes with the great grapes of France. (Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance.) As the plantings were new (the Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in a Bordeaux-like manner in areas where only Italian vines had once grown) the terroir argument was less easy to apply. In some cases, the vineyards themselves were relatively new.
And even in France, there is the example of Michel Rolland, nicknamed the Flying Winemaker, who became a hugely important figure in the wine world over a decade ago. Rolland went to people who made bad or mediocre wines and taught them how to change their style of wine-making. In most cases, the wines that were produced after Rolland’s intervention fetched higher prices. Soon Rolland was the consultant winemaker at wineries all over the world (including Grover in Bangalore).
If wine was all about terroir then why was Rolland, a Flying Winemaker, so successful? Didn’t his success suggest that human skill was more important than nature?
Rolland’s time at the top also coincided with the rise of the American wine writer Robert Parker who became the most powerful wine critic in the world, giving marks out of 100 to each wine and, effectively, determining its market price.
Critics complained that Rolland and Parker liked the same style of wine-making, one that yielded jammy, fruity, concentrated wines. Rolland never made elegant wines, said the critics and Parker had no appreciation of elegance.
I won’t take sides in this battle but what it does demonstrate is that in the 21st Century, the winemaker is an increasingly influential figure. The good wine may be about nature and terroir. But you need a commercially savvy wine-maker to get you a good price on the market. The global wine market today comprises mostly first-generation wine-drinkers whose idea of what a good wine should taste like is determined by the tastes of people like Parker.
I reckon it doesn’t matter very much to the DRC category wines. (Parker has failed to have any impact on the complex wines of Burgundy though he has influenced winemaking styles in Bordeaux.) At that level, it is still only about terroir. All excellent wines will always find a market among those who can afford them.
But in the rest of wine world, the role of man is increasingly becoming more important than the role of nature.The cult of the celebrity winemaker and the creation of a uniform, clearly the commercial style of winemaking are edging out historical notions of terroir.