|Back to France (and of course Italy, Portugal, Spain,
)Back in 1993, when I first
became interested in wine in a serious way, I didn't begin by drinking the French
classicsinstead, I gained my education primarily from the Australian and New Zealand
wines that were then beginning to be extremely popular in the UK. My first great wine
experiences were not, therefore, mature classed growth-clarets or premier cru Burgundies;
instead, I was wooed by Coonawarra Cabernet, Hunter Valley Shiraz and of course the
Penfolds' blends such as Bins 28, 128 and 389. These wines had great appeal to me as a
wine newbie: they were rich, ripe, dressed up in seductive new oak and were very
affordable. Above all, they displayed a depth of flavour that was almost entirely absent
in similarly priced wines from the classic French regions. And unlike decent Bordeaux, I
didn't have to wait ten years to be able to enjoy them.
I am sure that I am not alone in this respect: many of my wine geek chums in their late
20s and early 30s have taken a similar route, bypassing the classic regions and heading
straight for the 'new world' for the bulk of their early wine education. But now, a few
years later, I have noticed a new phenomenon among my peers. Whereas before in our wine
shopping we may have headed straight for the Australian, New Zealand or Chilean shelves,
now we are lingering over the Rhônes and Burgundies, checking the Bordeaux future prices,
dipping into the Loire selections and eagerly looking for the new wave of wines from the
Languedocwe are going back to the classic European wine regions, and most
There are several potential explanations for this.
- A sense of place
Now I'm a big fan of Australian wines, and I'll continue to drink them with
pleasure, but even their keenest advocates will concede that there are certain problems
with the new world way of doing things. One is that most producers try to do a bit of
everything, producing several different wine styles from just one property. And even the
best patch of land isn't going to be ideally suited to all of Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot,
Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and Semillon. It will take time for new world producers to
discover exactly where each variety grows best, and then commercial courage to concentrate
on growing only the varieties suited to their vineyard holdings. Allied to this, the new
world focus on a restricted set of grape varieties leads to proliferation of just a few
styles, which can get a bit boring. This lack of diversity is emphasized by too much
reliance on cellar technology, leading to a heavy winemaking imprint that obscures the
sense of place that is an intrinsic aspect of many of the great wines of the old world.
- Bigger isn't always better
Concentration isn't everything in a wine, although I'd generally rather have a
concentrated wine than a dilute one. But now I'm less likely to be wooed by 'bigness' in a
wine: instead, I look for factors such as balance and complexity rather than just raw
power. These subtleties, amply displayed in many of the better wines from classic wine
regions, are easily missed by wine newbies. Old world wines don't display their attributes
brazenly for all to see; you have to search them out. They don't shout, they whisper; you
have to listen carefully.
- More money to spend on wine
My wine budget now is bigger than when I first got into wine, for a number of reasons --
not least because I'm so hooked by the wine bug that I spend more of my disposable income
on it than I used to. One consequence has been that my per-bottle spend has risen,
bringing interesting old world wines within range. After all, with a few notable
exceptions, it is still the case that the new world performs better than the old at the
bottom end of the price spectrum.
Does that mean I'll no longer buy new world wines?
Not at all! I haven't analysed my buying patterns, but I'd say that taking mood swings and
seasonal shifts into account, my purchases are probably split 50/50 between the old and
new world regions. Why? One of the enduring fascinations of wine is its diversity.
Whatever people say, new world wines are not all crude imitations of the old world styles.
Regions such as the McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley. Mudgee and the Hunter all have their own
distinctive styles, and where these are allowed their expression through careful
winemaking, they can be equally as compelling and valid as any of the great classics of
France, Italy and Spain. I see this 'back to France' movement not as a desertion of the
new world, but more as a correction of a bias or deficit. In fact, I could be argued that
someone versed in the old world classics but ignorant of the best of the new world has as
much still to learn as someone who was in my position of knowing new world wine but
lacking in-depth knowledge of the old. Long live diversity!