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The old world versus new world debate

By Nick Alabaster and Jamie Goode

In this collaborative piece, Nick Alabaster (NA) and Jamie Goode (JG) get to grips with what has been one of the most contentious issues in wine over the last deade or so: the new world/old world debate. Nick begins provocatively by stating why he thinks that old world wine is better than that from the new world in virtually every respect, and Jamie then adds his responses at the end of each paragraph. Finally, Nick makes a response that brings the discussion to a close. It makes fascinating reading...

Why old world wine is better than new world wine
NA: I was originally going to write a piece comparing new world wines with their old world counterparts, but it soon became apparent that comparisons simply show where new world wine is inferior to old. Now I'm going to try to show why I believe that old world wines are better, not only pointing out where they are clearly superior to new world wines, but taking the view that old is better than new using any viable criteria you can apply. Although it doesn't sound it so far, I am not old world bigot! A good third of the wine I own and enjoy is from the new world wine. I still look forward to uncorking various wines, in particular certain older Aussies and some well known US wines (some of which is due in part to having stored these wines for so long), but times have changed and so has my wine outlook. I can say for certain that based on the wine world today, I would be perfectly happy in my wine drinking if I could only buy from the old world. I'd almost say I'd be happy with just French wine but I'd would regret tasting the great Italian or Spanish examples - along with a TBA or two from Germany or Austria. Hence the broad stance of old versus new is an easy one for me to take. I'd like to qualify my position by saying that it is based on how I perceive the current situation. Even if my tastes don’t change, the wine-making world does and who's to say that in 10 or 20 years time the new world won't produce a truly 'great' wine. However, I have yet to drink a 'great' wine, by my definition, from the New World, but some examples come pretty close. And it has to be said that 10 years ago France really couldn't claim the value for money stakes quite the way Oz did back then. As I've said, times have changed.

JG: As someone who has been a serious wine geek for less than a decade, I come from a slightly different angle to many hardened wine nuts who were introduced first to the old world classics. Instead, my early wine education was predominantly from the new world regions, and in particular Australia and New Zealand. And here, I find myself in the position of having to defend wines from the new world against Nick's full frontal onslaught. Yet I can't honestly take the counter position of suggesting that new world wines are better than those from the old; this just isn't true. Instead, I'll try to argue that they are just as good, albeit different. This stance is probably mirrored by my own preferences and buying patterns. I'm a great fan of many of the old world regions, and have a particular soft spot for the wines of Portugal and the south of France, and overall, I'd say my wine purchases are probably equally split between the old and new worlds. I'm an advocate of diversity, and unlike Nick, I'd certainly find it difficult to be restricted to just old world wines.

NA: So let's take it from the top. Most people would include new world wines such as Penfolds Grange and Ridge Montebello in their list of the World's great wines. I wouldn't, although I do agree these can be excellent wines, in their own oaky and/or volatile new world style. But that's partly the problem with the new world: are there not only two new world regions which can even enter the World's greatest wines competition? Are there only two countries which can claim to sit at the top table? Let's admit it, the new world has an awful long way to go to match the experience level and ultimate expression of the grape of the old world. Has trying to copy the old world classics made the new world wines the poor cousins by default? I think it has, but I truly hope the shackles are removed and greatness will be found in a glass of new world wine. However, I'm not sure this will happen in my lifetime. New world regions are currently half a millennium behind the classic regions, going strictly by the numbers, and it could be that some of the lessons the old world has already learned simply cannot be passed on directly but have to be learnt over the generations.

JG: This is where Nick and I begin to see things differently. One blindspot of many old world wine lovers is that they tend to generalize and categorize wines of the new world, lumping them all together in one boat. And often, the critics of new world wines haven't actually tried many of them. If your experience of Australian wine, for example, is limited to sub-10 bottles from Oddbins, while you may well have tried some interesting wines, but you won't have an accurate picture of the finest that Australia has to offer. After all, imagine if someone's opinion of Bordeaux were to rest on the sub-10 bottles from the high street retailers: they'd rightly wonder what the fuss is about. But if you take the time to understand the differences between the different new world regions, it can be illuminating. Throughout the USA, Australia and South Africa, and increasingly Chile, Argentina and New Zealand, too, at the very top end there are many dozens of producers making tiny quantities of world class wines that are an authentic expression of their place of origin. Yes, in many of these wines there is a heavy winemaking imprint, but isn't this also true of many of the most expensive and sought after wines of the old world? Even so, the regional character shines through in these wines. Now I know that Nick isn't in this boat, and he has tried many of the most highly reputed new world offerings, so perhaps at one level this may be an issue of his personal preferences. But I'd argue that at the top end, the new world regions have a genuine diversity of styles that reflects the unique character of each region. But Nick has hit on one of the key issues that has hampered the development of the top new world wines: the fact that in the past many new world vignerons have tried to reproduce the old world classics. Now, though, most winemakers in the new world have realised that this is a dead end route, and are happily making fine wines that boldly proclaim their own unique origins.

NA: So what about the other end of the scale: value for money? Hasn't the likes of the US already priced most of the rest of the World out of that market? Hasn't Australia taken their eye off the ball while the rest of the World has realised what shoddy industrialised substances they try to pass off as wine? Learning about 3 million litre fermentation tanks sounds impressive until you realise that the drink you love, stripped of dignity and personality, is the ultimate loser. I've certainly got to the point where a certain weakness in spirit in an authentic but over-cropped old world wine still holds out more pleasure than oak, tannin and acid-bolstered versions from the new world which show no spirit at all (or is lack of spirit the right terminology to describe any new world wine with its often over-bearing ripeness and alcohol?).

JG: Nick obviously hasn't been drinking much sub-5 French wine recently, and seems to have forgotten just how awful old world plonk usually is. If you are paying less than 5 a bottle, you can't really expect a personality-filled, hand crafted product. But you can expect a sound, clean, tasty well made wine that will give a moderate amount of pleasure. Here, you could rightly argue that the new world fares patchily, but it certainly does a whole lot better than the old. Although sub-5 wines from the USA, South Africa and New Zealand are commonly poor, Chile, Argentina and Australia do this sort of thing very well. Take the Argentinean Malbecs from Norton and Bianchi, for example. These are tasty, chunky, serious red wines for less than 5. From Australia, Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay may be made in industrial quantities, but it is a well judged, full flavoured, delicious white wine. Looking to the old world, there are a few interesting wines in this price range, but they are largely the exception, and come from the less well known areas of the south of France, southern Italy and the regions of Spain and Portugal. These countries all still produce a wine-lake full of largely undrinkable plonk each year that is at least as depressing as the branded industrial excesses of the new world. And if technology is seen as being unromantic, it is largely new world-style winemaking practices that are responsible for the good inexpensive whites that are being made in the old world regions.

NA: And then there are the mid-priced wines: the wine arena that most wine drinkers over the World find as their home ground. I see wine as something to be enjoyed and possibly contemplated over the course of a meal or evening. This is where Old Wine really shows its colours. A 'great' wine shared at a party could be over in minutes, which is not always enough time for a new world wine to be stripped of it clothes and its structure (or more to the point lack of) to be revealed. How many of the new world monsters just become a tiring, hangover-inducing experience if you sit down and endure more than a small sample? It's the naturalness of the old world with its balance of alcohol, acid and tannin which allows a wine to age so well and more often than not develop attractively in the glass. At the very least, good balance allows a wine to be opened longer and provide the maximum amount of pleasure -- how many new world wines become aggressively acidic, tannic or volatile with air? In my experience, this is many if not most of them. And this is the crux of my argument. We know that some old world winemakers are not short of a technological trick or two; they probably invented them all! But why is it that new world wines struggle so deeply to find elegance, balance, expression and complexity in the way that the old world takes almost arrogantly as its prerogative? (Even when a certain amount of tampering behind the scenes has gone on it must be noted.) Answer that question and in part the New World can start to turn things around.

JG: This comes back to my point about diversity. Why do you want new world wines to become more like those from the old world? If you want elegance, balance and delicacy, then stick with your premier cru Burgundies from decent producers. If you want something bolder, with more concentration and fuller flavours, then you may wish to open a Coonawarra Cabernet. It would be a tragedy if the great wine styles of the new world attempted to become something which they are not, because they'd risk losing the essence of what makes them so special, in the same way that it would be a tragedy if all red Burgundy were to be made in a new world way -- dark-coloured, full bodied, fruit-driven and oaky. And the mid-priced sector is precisely where the new world most outperforms the classic old world regions, where it's hard to get an good authentic expression of Bordeaux or Burgundy for less than 15.

NA: But the story most definitely doesn't end there. Examples of old world adaptability abound in this modern wine drinking World. While some wines do impress with their traditional style with a modern twist, the Old World also shows that it too can recreate the originless, fruit and oak driven monsters if it so desires! Of course many drinkers like this style and the old world can provide a source of these wines if it chooses. I'm certainly not against free choice and although some of these wines don't impress me particularly, I remain impressed with the ability of the old world to remain pretty much on top of the game. One example I can give is tasting a very pleasant Tempranillo from Argentina, with lusty fruit and jammy character quite unlike anything from Rioja I'd tried to date. A wine for which complexity and structure played little part -- but none the less a pleasant wine experience. But only a couple of weeks ago in Spain, imagine my surprise to be tasting a wine from Rioja that for all the world tasted like this Tempranillo from Argentina! The one year old, practically unoaked Rioja from one of the more modern styled wineries - Atardi - just showed that it is a matter of choice for the Old World. So am I happy in my wine drinking and buying today? You bet I am. While the most popular critics drive many in the wine drinking World into a frenzy over ever more extreme and over the top examples from the new world, almost caricatures of their own worst features feeding down and influencing entire regions, I for one feel it is the old world which is the most exciting place to be searching out new and interesting wines.

JG: Here I find myself moving towards agreement with Nick. The old world regions that are sensibly embracing change are happy hunting grounds for open-minded wine lovers. I've already stated my enthusiasm for wines from Portugal and the South of France; the potential in old world wine regions for the production of interesting, novel wines is immense. I also share Nick's distaste for the 'bigger is better' school of new world wine, although many of the better new world producers are now striving for balance along with power. But yet again, I come back to the issue of diversity. The new world has its own unique styles, each region producing wines that represent valid expressions of their site of origin which can hold their heads up high in the exalted company of the old world classics. They may be very different in style, but to my mind they are of equal merit and importance. And because they lack the track record and fame of their old world counterparts, some of the top wines from the new world are still affordable, too. My conclusion would have to be that it is not a question of some wines being 'better' than other; at the top end of the quality spectrum it is instead a matter of personal preference. Unlike Nick, I couldn't live without wines from the new world any more than I could do without the old world classics.

Nick's response: Our paths aren't really so dissimilar -- my 'wine habit' has a lot to thank Australia for -- but I think things have changed on three levels. Firstly, Australia has made 'advances' which aren't to my liking: industrial scale homogeneity at the lower end and new wave over-ripe manipulated blockbusters at the other. Also, the old world has also smartened up its act as a whole in recent years, producing a whole range of styles and quality that encompasses most of the desirable styles out there. Thirdly, as I look more for elegance in wine in the form of balance and subtlety, I find less and less on offer from the new world that hasn't been swept up into this 'more is better' scheme -- the result is often an ungainly mess of oak, tannin, acid and alcohol. Balance should be a key part of any wine and just saying an out of balance wine is just a different style is not something I can go along with. It's interesting that Jamie should mention Coonawarra: this is one region which for me does show promising levels of balance with ripeness, being a comparatively cooler climate -- but that they too can get carried away with oak and alcohol. Whereas Jamie is convinced at 15 the New World is king, I'm convinced it's exactly this area that the Old World wins out! Good Burgundy and Claret can start at 10, excellent Rhones litter the 15 mark and classic Italian and Spanish wines still remain within reach . Thing is, it seems to me that most 15 New World wines tries to be the same thing. Have you noticed how similar Cabernet can be to Shiraz when the grapes are overripe and the oak heavy? But who could ever confuse even a modest French Syrah and a Claret?

I certainly accept though there can be some excellent wines or bargains to be had from the New World, but to me this doesn't undermine my generalization. While I admit good wine is hard to find in the old world for under 5, I think that applies anywhere. Whites from Montagny or Rully, red and whites from Southern Rhone down including Costieres de Nimes, Cotes du Luberon and Languedoc all throw up great values. Then, as Jamie says, look to Italy, Portugal and Spain and things don't look too bad at all at this end. Looking to the new world I find Oz has got very bland below 5, Chile tends to over-crop, but I admit Argentina is throwing up some worthy wines.

When it comes to World class wines I still think the new world fall short although I admit some don't have this hesitation. However, I truly am waiting for a new world wine to get in to my list of 'great' wine experiences. Maybe when that happens I will once more look to the new world and hopefully find the vision and diversity that Jamie proclaims.

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