Last week's post featuring the wines of the Pinot Posse sparked much debate over the respective merits and flaws of modern, new world-style pinot noir. At one end of the table, we had the new world wine lovers, who revel in bottles bursting with ripe, mouthwateringly juicy fruit, and (though they'd probably never admit it out loud) drunk-inducing alcohol levels.
Firmly rooted at the other end? The card-carrying members of wine's old school crew: classicists to their core, they salute traditionally made, food-friendly wines that showcase subtle varietal characteristics and celebrate terroir. The debate swirled around whether the Pinot Posse's unabashedly boozy stylings should even be compared in the same breath to pinots crafted in the old world style. So who's right? As with so many questions on wine, there's more than one way to skin a grape.
Let's start by understanding the merits of each argument. At its heart, old school winemaking is all about the grapes. The traditional approach to producing great wines is to let the unique nuances of each grape (and the land it's grown on) do the talking, with very little interference from the winemaker. Much of this approach is based on the fact that in the old country, it's against the law to add flavors, sugars, or anything else to wines belonging to a particular quality designation. As such, a winemaker's skill is highlighted in his or her ability to produce wines which showcase textbook elements of the varietal no matter the circumstances befalling the grapes (under-ripening, too much rain, you get the idea).
There's also quite the cultural distinction between old and new world wine styles -- for centuries, it was almost unimaginable to find a European enjoying a glass of wine on its own, without even a hunk of Parmegiano or slice of jamón to savor alongside it. The cooler continental climates found in most old world winemaking regions produce wines generally much higher in acid and less fruit forward than their new world counterparts, making them better food pairing partners. Long story short: Die-hard old world fans appreciate kick-ass wines made in a classic style, designed to enjoy with food.
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It's been said that winemaking in the new world is less about showcasing the grapes or place they were grown; rather, the focus shifts to the winemaker themselves. New world regions like the United States, New Zealand and Chile refrain from dictating precisely how a particular wine must be made, unlike their old world forbears. Sure, there are guidelines about what percentage of a single grape must make up a wine in order for that wine to be labeled as a particular varietal, or to be identified as coming from a specially designated wine growing region, but there's not much in the way of regulating how the wines are actually made. To wit, many new world winemakers take advantage of an assortment of tricks, techniques and tools in order to make wines that express their label's style in general and their own personal approach to winemaking. Long story short: New world wine lovers crave powerful, yet easy-drinking wines that are as unique as the winemakers who produce them.
You know that saying, "The customer is always right"? Well, truer words were never spoken, especially when it comes to declaring a winning style of winemaking. Old world wines can't (and shouldn't) be compared apples to apples (or is that grapes to grapes?) with new world wines because they're two different beasts altogether. Instead, drink what you love, and never feel ashamed about it. Learn to recognize and appreciate overall wine quality for each particular style and varietal -- as defined through an assessment of the wine's appearance, aroma, taste, and finish -- and enjoy what's inherently great about both old and new world wines.