After what seems like years of endless wine tastings, its clear the patina of West Coast wine knowledge continues to age and deepen, much like the lustre of an old dining room table.
The sold-out Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, which ended last week, marked 28 years of consumer interest in fine wine, and in an unexpected turnabout it was the Old World, not the upstart New, that generated an outpouring of vino enthusiasm.
The wine world talks incessantly about wine style, mostly in a New World versus Old World context, but what does that really mean?
The difference, primarily, is one of style. And while its a bit too simplistic to say, New World wines are richer, riper and usually more alcoholic on the palate. Its no less true or simplistic to claim that Old World/European wines tend to be leaner in structure, and bear more acid and firmer tannins. In most cases, they are crafted to accompany food.
That said, a little of both generalizations is true for each style, as many discovered at the Playhouse. In that spirit l thought it might be fun to explore the New World versus Old World conundrum as it pertains to France and four key grape varieties. This is not a challenge, but rather an explanation of what you can expect from certain grapes as they appear in wines from across the globe.
Sauvignon Blanc tasted outside of France is repeatedly described as being like Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. The problem is many consumers are simply unaware that fresh mineral crisp flavours of Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and Touraine are linked to sauvignon blanc because under French appellation law producers emphasize place name and not grape variety.
In the New World, the best examples mimic the Loire-style, offering smoky, mineral, pear and green apple flavours, leaner structure and higher acidity. The best sites for doing so are Casablanca, Leyda and Limari in Chile, Marlborough in New Zealand and the Constantia/Coastal Region of South Africa.
Food brings the New and Old World examples closer together. Clams, green lip mussels, goats cheese, pasta and chicken salads rule the New World, while chèvre, any fish in sorrel sauce, onion tarts and mussels would be the French equivalent.
New World: Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Casablanca, Chile $15
Old World: Chateau De Sancerre 2003, Loire Valley, France $23
Chardonnay is wonderful vehicle for this kind of grape detective work. The latest vintages of New World chardonnay are garnering renewed respect for crisp, fresh styling. Worldwide, the best new chardonnay vines have been pushed to the coolest and most marginal vineyard sites, in terms of weather, where acidity and fruit are intensified long before the grape gets to the winery. This delivers more intensely flavoured fruit and more vibrant, mouth-watering acidity. Californias Sonoma Coast, Monterey and Santa Barbara lead the rush, with plenty of help from cool parts of New Zealand and Australia.
French chardonnay, led by White Burgundy Chablis, Macon, and Côte Chalonnaise, is getting in on the trend with a definitely cleaner, if not necessarily fruitier style. Less overt oak, more lees and bread dough characteristics make them more complex in the mouth, resulting in wonderful food wines.
Lobster, tuna, oysters and Caesar salad are more New World dishes, while the French prefer their chardonnay with wild salmon, turbot, sole, oysters, white bean purée and onion tarts.
New World: Benziger Chardonnay Los Carneros 2003, Carneros, California, $27
Old World: Chanson Père Pouilly-Fuissé 2003, Mâconnais, France $35
Cabernet Sauvignon gained its fame in the Bordeaux region of France, primarily in and around the Médoc where it reigns supreme. The best cabernet has abundant but soft tannins with concentration and flavour complexity. Winemakers strive to achieve blackberry, cassis, black cherry and jam fruit flavours with black pepper and earthy spice characters.
The lighter, more modern style of cab, such as those from Chile, Argentina and Australia, place more of an emphasis on fruit flavours and softer tannins. This makes them more drinkable at a young age than traditional Bordeaux or the more serious wines of California, Tuscany, Washington and, lately, Canada.
The French serve it with entrecote a la Bordelaise sauce, woodcock in red wine sauce or even pigeon with vegetables, while in the New World its a T-bone or rib-eye steak, lamb or venison with a blueberry sauce.
New World: Carmen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003, Valle del Maipo, Chile $20
Old World: Chateau Carignan 2003 Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Fance, $29
Pinot Noir does anyone do it better than the French, more specifically, the vignerons of Burgundy? When the French get it right, their pinot can be mind altering.
The challenge for consumers is a blizzard of producers that share a small number of appellations. But if Burgundy was once regarded a temple of pinot noir production, its now merely a region in France that produces some of the worlds best.
After that, you can turn to an ever-growing number of regions such as Central Otago, Martinborough, Canterbury, Nelson and Marlborough in New Zealand or the Russian River, Carneros, Monterey, and Santa Barbara County in California. Throw in Oregon, Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia, and Leyda and Casablanca in Chile, not to mention British Columbia and Ontario. You get the picture the game is on.
In France, the food can range from rabbit, maigret de canard , pheasant and coq au vin. Closer to home, pinot with quail, duck, turkey, sausages and wild mushrooms can be mighty tasty.
New World: Valdivieso Pinot Noir Reserve 2004, Region del Valle Central, Chile, $23
Old World: Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune du Chateau Rouge 2003, Burgundy, France, $53
Wines biggest ally is the curiosity of consumers. That should make it a lot easier for Old World producers like France to re-establish itself in B.C. where everyone, it seems, is curious about wine.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com