New World winemakers have become obsessed with ‘European elegance’, a trend that’s so boring it’s enough to make you yearn for the ripe, oaky Chardonnays of yesteryear, argues Graham Holter
IT’S ONE OF the great ironies of modern winemaking that producers who spend so much time waffling on about “a sense of place” are actually turning out wines that taste pretty much the same, wherever they’re from.
“Cool climate vineyards”, “moderating ocean breezes”, “restrained oak” and – most jarring of all – “European elegance” are phrases which routinely crop up on back labels or in other marketing bumph.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. In fact they’re rather attractive ideas: just saying them aloud is enough to inspire a Pavlovian sprint to the nearest wine fridge, and a sudden impetus to write off the rest of the afternoon. But you can have too much of a good thing.
New World producers can’t wait to play the subtlety card. “Yes, our wines used to be jammy, over-oaked and unbalanced, and we apologise unreservedly,” seems to be the message. “But now we’ve seen the error of our ways and understand that we should be making wines like the French, the Spanish and the Italians.”
This overlooks the fundamental point that we already have plenty of stuff made by the French, the Spanish and the Italians. The New World is meant to offer an alternative to European wines (at least with the products it exports to the UK). Trying to ape the Old World is a pointless and self-defeating ambition.
Chardonnay is caught squarely in the firing line. Ripe, oaky styles are derided as outmoded and rather grotesque. Nervous Antipodeans pour out glasses of virtually colourless liquid and wait to be congratulated on how it tastes nothing like the Chardonnay they used to make. “We’ve gone for European elegance,” they explain, in New South Wales accents. But those accents could equally be from North or South America, perhaps South Africa.
Ripe, oaky Chardonnay was a style that millions of people loved. It was marketed as sunshine in a glass, and for a decade or so British wine drinkers made it their wine of choice.
From our 21st century vantage point, we can dismiss it as the heir to Liebfraumilch; a mere stepping stone on the journey to more challenging and “authentic” styles. But it was more than just that. Of course it was often overwrought and unbalanced, but the better examples did an important job: they made people happy. And their creators never felt the need to cringe or apologise, or to invite comparisons with Chablis. People literally named their children after this wine.
Now it enjoys popularity on a par with smallpox, and the wine trade appears eager to consign it to the same fate. Consumers have been informed they were wrong to have ever loved such disgusting stuff, with its vulgar, full-on flavour, and ushered towards more sophisticated fare. In another wine trade irony, this turned out to be Pinot Grigio.
THE TREND TOWARDS homogeneity comes at exactly the wrong time. Good wine can now be made in more countries than ever. Yet the recipe for success is assumed to be European restraint.
Some of us didn’t go bananas for old-style New World Chardonnay the first time round, but it’s possible to get wistful for the stuff these days. At least it was something different, and of its place.
It would be refreshing to hear more New World producers talk about why their wines are so different from Chablis, or Loire Sauvignon, or Champagne, or Rias Baixas Albarino, or Burgundy Pinot Noir, rather than waste time telling us they’re exactly the same thing. If that means ripeness, extra alcohol and richer flavours, so be it. More people enjoy that style than they might realise.
Being true to your terroir and your tradition (or creating a new tradition) ought to be a badge of honour. Dull facsimiles of wine styles from entirely different continents, on the other hand, are desperately uncool.
This article appears in the September 2013 edition of The Wine Merchant.