If I were teaching an Introduction to Wine course rather than spending my days tasting until my tongue turned blue, this would be Lesson One: New World wines are usually labeled by grape variety (chardonnay, pinot noir); European wines are labeled by appellation, or place name (Côte-Rôtie, Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques). This sounds simple enough, but the differences between the two approaches are philosophical and profound.
In Europe, where winemaking goes back millennia, the distinctive character of soil and site are paramount. Over the centuries, wine farmers from Portugal to Hungary have figured out what grape variety (or blend of varieties) is capable of most clearly expressing the unique attributes of their parcel of land. Thus what goes on the label is where the wine comes from rather than what grapes went into the bottle. Many European consumers have learned, for example, that Côte-Rôtie is made from syrah, and sometimes includes a bit of the white grape viognier.
Meantime, in the Americas, we're still figuring out which grapes do well where. Most New World winemakers are perfectly happy to make bold, varietally accurate, clean wines from thoroughly ripe fruit. From a commercial standpoint it's hard to argue with that approach. Most American wine drinkers are more comfortable buying varietally labeled wines because we sort of know what chardonnay, or pinot noir, or cabernet sauvignon means, whereas world geography has never been our strong suit.
Still, this approach to wine-buying puts American consumers at a disadvantage. Unless they've had a specific wine recommended by a friend, critic or wine merchant, Americans are unlikely to pick a Minervois or Jumilla blind off the shelf, even though these wines are good and cheap alternatives to rich reds from California. Instead, they're apt to buy commercial-grade 'sauvignon blanc' from countries known for inexpensive wines, or to spend much more than they need to for a cabernet from California.
I'm not saying you have to take an intensive French or Italian course to find real wines at affordable prices. But it's a good idea to learn some key place names and what they mean, especially in France, Spain and Italy, where $15 bottles can compare favorably in flavor interest and complexity to West Coast wines selling for two to five times the price.
Pale, bright yellow. Pure aromas of musky stone fruits, grapefruit and pineapple. Round and thick but with ripe acidity framing the rich nectarine and pineapple flavors. Offers lovely fruit intensity and noteworthy persistence for a California chardonnay in this price range. The winemaker blocked the malolactic fermentation in 65% of this wine and aged it in just 25% new oak to preserve vibrancy of fruit.
Bright medium red. Exotic, floral aromas of crushed cherry, sandalwood, blood orange and mint. Juicy and penetrating, with excellent cut to the cherry, spice and orange peel flavors. This wine will melt the fat off your grilled sausage. Finishes with a light dusting of tannins.
Subtle, pure aromas of grapefruit pith, pepper and salty minerality; there's something saké-like about the nose of this wine. Then tactile, spicy and intense in the mouth, with rich grapefruit and ginger flavors and very good zip for a Sancerre from this warm year. The persistent finish is savory, complex and bracing.
Region: South Africa
Bright red-ruby. Mulberry, dark cherry, licorice, wild herbs, chocolate and a whiff of game on the nose. Lush and deep but not at all heavy, with sexy, varietally accurate flavors of dark berries and smoked meat. This really expands and gains in sweetness toward the back. The broad finish features substantial ripe tannins. A mouthful of syrah for the price. Incidentally, with this vintage the variety on the label was changed from shiraz to syrah, which is much more reflective of the wine's style.
Bright ruby. Pungent, exotic aromas of blackcurrant, anise and apricot pit, accompanied by a smoky overtone. Sappy, penetrating dark berry flavors are lifted by a lively mineral quality, picking up a note of bitter chocolate with air. Finishes firm and gripping, with brisk dark berry flavors. I like this wines blend of richness and energy.
Medium red with a palish rim. Musky aromas of red fruits, spices and dried flowers; quintessential nebbiolo. Then sweet, velvety and perfumed in the mouth, without being a bit jammy. The raspberry and floral flavors are complicated by an intriguing suggestion of white fruit. This complex and highly aromatic wine finishes with very fine tannins and excellent length.
Region: South Africa
Pale yellow. Complex aromas of pear, stone fruits, pineapple, spices and pepper, plus a whiff of curry powder. Juicy, fresh and penetrating, with lovely fruit flavors enlivened by minerality, which also gives firmness to the finish. Ken Forrester is now farming his estate vineyards organically. Seventy percent of this wine was aged and fermented in barriques, 20% of which were new, but the wine's material wears the oak component lightly.
Saturated ruby. Deeply pitched aromas of cassis, boysenberry and musky herbs, with a suave overlay of dried flowers. At once rich and lively, offering gently sweet dark berry flavors firmed by a spine of tangy acidity. Fine-grained tannins add shape and grip to the long, licorice-accented finish. I like this wine's combination of Bordeaux-like elegance and southern French wildness.
red. Lively dark berry scents are complicated by notes of violet and
Indian spices, with a hint of olive that reminds me of syrah. Juicy and
nicely focused, with pure blackberry and bitter cherry flavors that
pack a serious punch without any excess weight. Finishes tangy and
precise, with noteworthy length and persistent spiciness. Mondeuse is a
distant relative of syrah, and Bugey, on the eastern edge of France in
the Ain département, received its full AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) status in early 2009
Medium red. Piercing aromas of pomegranate, sour cherry, flowers and leather. Silky, juicy and vibrant, with tangy flavors of sweet/tart cherry and flowers. Distinctly pinot-like in the way it delivers flavor impact without excess weight. Expands nicely on the suave back end, finishing with serious dusty tannins and lingering perfume. This style is remarkably food-friendly.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
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