Old for New - a pretty good deal

18 April, 2008

What has the New World of wine done for the Old? It might sound like a strange question, given what's happened over the past two decades. In the UK, we have seen a steady erosion of the latter's market share at the hands of the Australians, Americans, Chileans, Kiwis, Argentinians and South Africans. But I beg to differ. The situation may look like a one-way street, but the traffic is moving, albeit slowly, in both directions.

Even the most blinkered European producer would admit that the

southern

hemisphere (and North America) has done a lot of good for wine. It has made it more accessible, thanks, in particular, to the use of grape variety names, but also to more appealing labelling and the development of "fruit-forward" styles. Much of this has now been absorbed by the best, commercially-minded European producers.

The New World has also taught the Old a lot about marketing

- wine, let us not forget, is ultimately a product that needs to be sold like any other. There may still be French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or German winemakers out there who shrug their shoulders and imply that if you don't like their wine

it's your fault, but they are an endangered species. Everyone accepts that the wine business is a competitive world that can only get tougher now

EU subsidies are being phased out.

But let's turn the question on its head. What has the Old World done for the New? The answer, which still holds true, is to provide inspiration. Europe still makes the majority of the world's finest wines, from Barolo to Bordeaux, Meursault to Mosel Rieslings, Rioja to northern Rhône Syrah. The New World may dominate the mass market (just take a look at the list of the leading brands), but at the top end it's still a long way behind. There are exceptions, but the majority of the New World's so-called icon wines are over-priced and over-hyped.

Why am I telling you this now? Well, I've just done two large tastings of most of the top red wines from South Africa and Argentina and the quality was disappointing in absolute terms. I think the same thing would be true of similarly ambitious, highly praised wines from Australia, Chile and California.

The first tasting was held by Wines of South Africa in an attempt to analyse what it is that UK critics don't like about many Cape reds (that green, rubbery, faintly smoky character). The blind tasting of 54 bottles included a few cheaper wines, but there were 23 reds that sell at £14.99 or more. The line-up included wines from some of the Cape's most famous cellars: Meerlust, Hamilton-Russell, Thelema, Rustenberg, Vergelegen, Warwick, Kanonkop, Neil Ellis, Jordan, Buitenverwachting, Kevin Arnold, Fairview, Quoin Rock, TMV and Boekenhoutskloof.

My conclusion is that the unattractive Cape pong is less marked than it was a couple of years ago, but there are still far too many mediocre wines, with over-­oaking, over-extraction and excessive alcohol the main criticisms. I gave the equivalent of four gold medals (18.5/20 or more) - 2004 Thelema Merlot Reserve, 2004 Kanonkop Paul Sauer, 2005 Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block and 2006 TMV Swartland Syrah - but fewer than 15 points to more than a third of the wines.

Two days later I was at the 02 arena for a tasting of Argentina's "super reserve wines". The press release

accompanying the tasting sheet informed us

"the Americans have got the jump on us when it comes to discovering the super reserve and limited bottlings

Argentina has to offer. The New Year saw a plethora of high marks and enthusiasm that will surely only make these wines more difficult to buy".

Given some of the prices - 53

of the 60 wines sell at £14.99 and above, and a fair few are £50+ wines - I can't see British punters queuing up to emulate their American counterparts. As with the South African tasting, there were far too many clumsily-made wines. This time I gave six gold medals - 2006 Finca Decero ­Remolinos Vineyard Malbec, 2005 O Fournier Alfa Crux Malbec, 2006 Achaval-Ferrer Finca Mirador, 2004 Bressia Profundo, 2005 Finca Sophenia Synthesis and 2005 Pulenta Estate Gran Corte - and the thumbs down to a quarter of the 60 .

This might sound like a better performance than the Cape's, but the average price of the wines (not to mention the carbon-guzzling weight of the bottles) was much higher. There was none of the South African greenness on show this time - highly unlikely, given that most of Argentina's vineyards are located in a desert - but those same oak-, alcohol- and extraction-related problems were present once more.

These wines may sell successfully on the other side of the Atlantic, but they don't have a future here.

On this evidence, the New World urgently needs to reconsider the ­direction in which it is heading with its reds. It's time to remember, and learn from, the qualities for which the Old World is famous - elegance, finesse, longevity and the ability to complement, rather than compete with, food.

For the sake of anyone who values balance in wine, that two-way street needs to increase its traffic flow.




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