The Rise of the New World
We had a Bordeaux tasting yesterday as part of our staff education day and the message I took away from my experience was one of modernization. We tasted the 2012 vintage from Chateau Lanessan—a producer known for making one of the more rustic, old school, and earthier wines in the region—and it was nothing but dark cherries on the nose, a rounder palate of supple fruit, and a finish as smooth as silk; not even a trace of anything remotely earthy. "This is Chateau Lanessan?" I asked our Bordeaux buyer and co-owner Clyde Beffa.
"They have a new winemaker now. Very modern," he answered.
When you hear the term "old world" or even "old school" used to describe a wine, it's probably referring to a tannic, earthy, farmy, or more robust flavor profile—most likely because the production methods of the producer himself are quite "old world". A little dirt gets mixed in with the crush, maybe the fermentation vats aren't completely sterilized, the stems aren't necessarily separated from the berries—that type of thing. Just good ol' country grit, if you know what I mean. Nothing fancy, just your old-fashioned, everyday, backyard winemaking. Back in the day, when a wine tasted a bit "rustic" after being bottled, the simple answer was to cellar it for a few years and allow it to "soften" a bit. Put it down in the basement, let it rest for half a decade, then pull it out for dinner, and—voila!—it's delicious and ready to go. Time would work out the kinks naturally. But as science and technology have advanced over the years, so have sterilization and winemaking practices. Now there's no need to wait. Winemakers today can virtually eliminate any malodorous character and all other obstacles to instantaneous drinking. They can micro-oxygenate (run a hose that inserts little bubbles into the tank) to bring out more fruit flavors, add new oak to increase the vanilla, and force malolactic fermentation to add a buttery note to your favorite chardonnay. Why let a bad vintage or an out-dated facility stand in the way of perfect flavor? You know you can sell twice as much wine if it tastes soft and smooth, right?
Did that last sentence sound a bit sarcastic? Well, it wasn't necessarily intended that way. I don't know anyone, other than the people I work with or interact with in the store, who enjoys "old world" character when drinking red wine. Most people want modern wine because it's not difficult to wrap your head around. It's full of sweet fruit and it goes down easy. Your average American didn't grow up with a proper wine cellar, stacked with aged claret, and the finest red Burgundies; training his or her palate from the age of six on the various chateaux of the Medoc. Most of us were raised with Chef Boyardee and white zinfandel in a three-liter jug. We didn't have cheese plates. We had Velveeta melted over broccoli. This whole wine culture thing is a fairly-recent phenomenon in the new world. Because of that learning curve, I am very specific and transparent when I sell any customer a bottle of anything with serious maturity. I want to make sure they know exactly what they're getting into before they throw down their hard-earned cash (a lot of it, no less).
"Do you like old wine?"
"Do you normally drink it?"
"Are you familiar with the flavors? The lack of fruit? The more savory, earthy, and evolved flavors it entails?
I've known people who have spent thousands on Bordeaux, hundreds more on storage, waited years for their wines to evolve, only to find out that they didn't like the wines once they were ready to drink.
"Something's wrong with this wine. Taste it." they'll say.
"It tastes fine to me. What do you think is wrong with it?" I'll answer.
"Smell it! It's all musty and there's no fruit!"
"Right, it's delicious. You don't like it?"
Aged wine does not taste like chocolate or caramel. It's not like aged Scotch, brandy, or Bourbon where it gets richer and sweeter the older it gets. Aged wine can be like your first cigar or cigarette: it might not taste great at first, but over time you'll grow to love it. No one will appreciate the nuance of a great first-growth Bordeaux without the proper indoctrination. But who has the time or the money to build that level of appreciation? If the majority of Americans don't like "old world" flavor (or don't have the experience to appreciate it), and they don't have wine cellars at home, and they don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on wine that won't be ready to drink for another ten years, why force them to do so? Why not instead just make a wine that tastes soft, fruity, supple, and smooth right out of the bottle? That's the standard belief of the new world winemaker—let's make something delicious and tasty to drink right now! We've got the technology, why not use it?
I was talking to K&L Bordeaux expert Jeff Garneau yesterday about his recent dining experience at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco; a restaurant that has recently morphed into the more-modern Parallel 37. "The wine list was all new California. They still had a '47 Cheval Blanc on the menu and a bunch of other older Bordeaux options left over from the previous ownership, but you could tell they were moving in a new direction," he told me as we tasted recent Bordeaux arrivals in the backroom. "We did the chef's tasting menu and the wines were fabulous; incredibly interesting—things like ribolla gialla for the white. But there wasn't much from the old world, nor were they pouring anything with age on it." Interesting, indeed. Modern California cuisine is finally embracing the hip and modern era of California wine making, no longer forcing its patrons to play French.
Is the old world in danger? Maybe. Does anyone care? I don't know.