I hope you didn’t sashay past all the good reading in this edition to wind up at the back of the bus reading my narcissistic blither. Go back while you still have a chance! The editor thinks my column only deserves the attention of a masochistic insomniac having too much time on their hands. If the advertising department would perform better, this page could be replaced with great ideas for cool indulgences instead of my unabashed subjectivity. Until then, you are stuck with this column where the ramblings approach chaos.
Recent and enviably frequent pleasure trips to Europe, augmented by domestic destinations judging wines from around the world, have renewed my passion for wines with Old World-style, particularly when it comes around to matching them with food. To me (pay attention, you will strike gold if you take my opinion), Old World styled wines, in a general sense, mean moderate alcohol levels, less oak component extraction, and seem dry. Old World minerality and fruity feel are components that are the product of a slow cook in mature oak cooperage…barrel, not oak. I find that they better match with foods because they don't get into a slugfest with what you are eating… They have Finesse...#eatmewithfood!
New World styled wines, on the other hand, to me are more alcoholic, typically have more extracted oak components, and contain perceptible sweetness. Sometimes in a tasting of red wines, one would think the vintners are engaged in a liquid weightlifting contest; plentiful oak components extracted from new, heavily toasted barrels or oak adjuncts, big-ass grapey flavors and close to Martini alcoholic content. My question is: Why eat when you have a meal in your glass? When wines like that are around, I revert to my old college proclamation: “don’t put solids in a hydraulic machine…” These wines for me are muscular, solo drinkers, not arm pieces for a date with a plate. They have Chutzpah ...#drinktheheckouttathem!
There wasn’t a New World style 40 years ago…the New World style is, uh, new! Back in the old days when I was a young whippersnapper, the goal was to take a Bordeaux variety, like Cabernet Sauvignon, and make it taste French. Over a few decades, influenced by a Western-world sweet-tooth and cravings for viscosity, the New World style was born. Moreover, winewriters promoted wines of bolder character, so we were swayed.
To create this difference, New World winemakers dutifully stroll through the vineyards looking for physiological maturity. Those artistic visionaries want the grapes to express varietal character; patiently waiting for stem hardening, called lignification, seed browning and distinctive fruit flavors…sometimes to hell with chemistry. The amount of resultant alcohol is generally directly related to its beginning sugar content, and sugar continues to build through protracted photosynthesis and dehydration while waiting for optimum flavors. Concurrently, acidity falls and tannin levels adjust from green to mature as fall marches forward, so you end up with a big, chewy wine. Augmented by a little sugar and compelling influences from new, charred barrels and you have the basis of New World style.
It’s not to say that all of the Old World Wines are Old World-styled wines, and the same with New World wines. Anybody can make anything in any place. Take a trip to the Navarre or La Rioja in north-central Spain and you will think you are in Napa or Washington knocking back a made-for-drinking chewable mouthful, with lots of alcohol and extraction. Accordingly, I recently tasted a Chablis knockoff here at home; an orchardy, citrusy, mineralic, unoaked Washington Chardonnay made by my favorite winemaker. Admittedly I have no basis for this broad brush; look at what has happened to Riesling…the vintners abandoned sweet, low alcohol Riesling for dry, more alcoholic Riesling…the consistent inconsistency you have come to expect from moi.
By no means am I bad-mouthing the New World-style of wine; for one thing, I’m used to them, and secondly, it's tough finding Old World styled wines here on the left coast of North America. We drink these strongly flavored wines with dinner, bragging to our friends about how they marry so well with the grilled Kosher dog… And sometimes, for me, the food and New World wine don't clash despite the competing flavors; stronger flavored foods can pair with mouth monsters. I make a complex, heavily herbed marinara sauce, sweetened only by garlic and tomatoes; it works well for me with a hedonistic, 15% alcohol, 2% residual sugar fruit and wood bomb. With that food, there's a seamless transition with the New World wine being the food, having it first without food, then having it with food when you have food like that food, as the Department of Redundancy Department would put it.
There are the theories that high alcohol cuts the fat, that the true marriage of food and wine is based on contrasting flavors, and sugar mitigates distracting bitterness. Heck, if that fits your definition of pairing, it’s your mouth...good on ya!
Suffice to say, in my highly disrespected opinion, massive wood, over 14.5% demon alcohol and perceptible sugar are the culprits separating the styles.
As we wind down this wine whispering event, just thank your lucky stars you didn’t have to listen to me. For very important me, in the broad sense, New World is for drinkin’, Old World is for eatin’… Whatever World you are in, I hope you enjoy varied wine styles with friends, in moderation, frequently.