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slow death by boring wine

part II: Old World/New World

by Stuart Walton

Columnist Stuart Walton writes on issues close to his heart. His views are not necessarily those of wine-pages, but they touch on topics of interest to all wine-lovers. In part II of this essay Stuart again examines whether we are in a golden new age of wine and wine choice, or sliding down a slippery slope to medicority. In many ways it follows on from my own essay, "The Dumbing Down of Wine".

To read responses from wine-pages visitors, along with Stuart's replies, click here.

This is part II. To catch up with the whole story, please read part I.

In part one I condemned the relentless rise of dullard's wine, in the form of identikit, lightly oaked slop from the southern hemisphere. Those who joined with me will probably have found themselves from time to time being asked what they would prefer to drink in its place. 'Surely not the traditional wines of old Europe,' goes the cry, 'that bureaucratic nursing-home of nepotism, slovenly practices and adulteration scandals. The New World has given them a right seeing-to, hasn't it?'

In terms of sheer market-share, this revisionist plea is indeed hard to counter. Australia alone is well on the way to head-butting France off the dinner-tables of Britain (it already virtually has knocked it off the shelves of Oddbins once a fine, independent-minded wine-merchant, now little more than a forcing-house for as much oaky Chardonnay as it can get down the gullets of a gullible public). Taken together, the ensemble of non-European countries that British flat-earthers insist on calling the New World is already outstripping France.

And about time too, the revisionists whinge. With their thickets of regulations and their belief that nobody else in the global vineyard matters as much as them, they deserved the hiding they are getting in the market. Not to mention the fact that they can't make wine properly anyway. Their miserable marginal climates are a joke compared to the sun-swamped splendour of the Barossa or Napa Valleys. To which one can only respond with a resounding 'Grow up!'

The old chestnut that it is the appellation contrôlée system (and its equivalents) that has held the European countries back from achieving what they might, while the New Worlders soar ahead in unfettered creative freedom, always was a load of old toffee-flavoured Chardonnay.


Just as the constraints of the studio system resulted in Hollywood's never-bettered golden age, and the existence of the old playlist made Radio 1 a listenable thing of beauty instead of the playpen of shrieking mediocrity it now is, so the appellation regulations are responsible for the highest achievements of world wine.

There may be mediocre producers in Pouilly-Fumé and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not half as many as there are in suit-yourself Riverina. And if the appellations are such a naff idea, then how come every New World winery worth its sulphur dioxide produces premium bottlings from selected sites? Trickle Creek Vineyards Yew Tree Hill Pinot Noir what's that if it's not an appellation?

The idea that the Europeans, the French in particular, sniffily disregard the wine industries of other countries is another soggy old myth. They couldn't be more aware of the competition, as anybody who regularly visits French wine-

  producers will know. It's just that, whereas the vignerons in appellations like Cahors once wondered what chance they stood against the likes of gloopy Shiraz from the hot countries, they now realise that imitating such a style even were the vintage conditions to make it possible is somewhat beneath them. A red wine as thick and as sweet and as simple as plum jam is kids' stuff. Good Cahors (and there is plenty of it about) is for grown-ups.

Anybody who has ever undertaken a course of wine study will have started out being told that the vine thrives best in poor soils and marginal climates. Older vines and lower yields produce the best wines.

To gaze upon the Gadarene rush to the Antipodes that our retail buyers have led is to be made aware of how much that lesson has been forgotten.

In honing our tastebuds away from wines with crisp acidity, savoury edge, restrained astringency and sane alcohol levels, we have undergone a wholesale regression into infantility, and in the process burdened ourselves with wines that only very approximately accompany our best culinary efforts (not to mention those of the city brasserie where it is naturally presumed that only a fool would spurn the chance of a galumphing Shiraz to set beside the truffle-oiled mash).

There is of course sub-standard wine in France and Europe, as there is anywhere the vine is cultivated. The difference is that the very best wines that France, and southern Italy, and northern Spain, and the Alentejo, and the Mosel, can offer are each unmatched anywhere else on the planet.

Clare Valley Riesling will never in a month of bloody Sundays be Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Marlborough Sauvignon has the fruit, but not the acid grip or the peculiar flinty density of top Sancerre. Will Napa Valley Merlot ever be as great as pedigree Pomerol? Or sparkling sweet Cabernet ever keep them awake at night in Champagne?

I was once called 'a vintage snob' for these views by a writer of shopping-lists in the broadsheet press. But really make yourself a list of which wines you would like to see on the menu at your very last supper on earth. Will it be méthode traditionnelle or the real thing? Will it be a vigorous young Sauternes, or a painstakingly rotted Semillon from the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area?

Don't make me laugh.