Old vs. new 

A wine world smackdown

In the ring are two competing factions in the wine world. In one corner, wearing plaid pants and a staid necktie is the Old World -- France, Spain, Germany, Italy. In the opposite corner, wearing DKNY and body jewelry in an unspeakable place is the New World -- U.S., Australia, South America, South Africa. The grave, know-it-all old-timers sit back and do things the traditional way while the trash-talking teenagers have wine orgies and piss off the establishment.

Round one: The advertising begins. If you haven't noticed, there's been an influx of wine consumer advertising. Unusual wine marketing avenues such as billboards and radio have been spotted as some savvy New World producers try to reach into your pockets. Haven't seen many German Riesling ads, though.

Round two: Labeling. I've harped on France's complicated French labeling, and the New World wineries have captured the hearts of many a wine drinker simply by telling us the grape name and slapping a clever moniker on the bottle. Some great ones of late: Porcupine Ridge's Goats do Roam from South Africa, California's Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad, and Australia's Madfish Winery.

At a recent press conference I attended, the French wine industry unveiled a pumped-up marketing schema for the U.S., centering on how to make its wine more user-friendly and approachable. They'll be implementing a program with easier-to-understand varietal labeling (meaning: with the grape name on it), but this won't extend to the venerable and confusing French "Appellation d'Origine Controlee" or AOC wines which are labeled by region. So, this means some wines in the "lesser quality" regions of Burgundy will be labeled Pinot Noir, and then others down the road such as Gevry Chambertin or Nuits St. George will remain a mystery for the average wine buyer. Thanks, France, for clearing it up for us.

But the main difference between the Old and New World are the wines themselves. In the Old World, governments heavily regulate the winemaking processes. They even standardize the amount of grapes harvested per acre, and how long the wine must age. In other words, the winemakers' opportunities for innovation are limited, and the old traditions are so ingrained that change is frowned upon. Thus, the wines remain somewhat alike; they possess high quality and character, but reflect very little of the winemaker's personality.

South America, specifically Argentina and Chile, leans toward the Old World category, simply because the French got their claws in early. Currently, there are several successful French/Argentinean ventures, such as the Catena Winery that works with the wildly profitable Rothschild company out of Bordeaux. Working with the grape-friendly soil and southern climates, the French have influenced the South Americans with their traditional techniques and full-bodied, tannic styles.

New Worlders -- Americans and Australians -- in their usual cocky and arrogant way, prefer to thumb their nose at tradition. Generally speaking, they make comfortable, fruity wines for people who aren't collectors or looking to elevate wine to cult status. The wines reflect a desire to create wines for the masses, wines for everyday consumption, wines made for the modern palate. With less regulation, New World winemakers can run free and create more innovative wines.

So it might seem that the fight is a stalemate, with the consumer winning. Never before have wine drinkers had so many choices for consumption. I'm just glad the new guys arrived on the world scene. But that's just one arrogant and cocky wine critic's opinion.

Recommended Wines

Wolf Blass President's Selection 1999 Southeastern Australia Shiraz ($16) : Toasty vanilla with juicy cherry flavors open up in the glass. Smells like a bowl of currants.

Jean Leon 1998 Merlot ($25) : Not your mama's Merlot. Big, bold flavors of tobacco and dark cherry. Pairs perfectly with any form of blue cheese.



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