Old World vs New World

Domaine de Chevalier, a beautiful château I visited in Bordeaux in October 2011.


Last fall, when I was in Burgundy and Bordeaux, I posted many photos on Facebook, like I always do when I’m travelling.

A friend of mine, after looking at my photos and posts, asked me if French wines are really that better than wines produced in the US. Wine preference is personal, subjective and may evolve over time. For me, that is exactly what a wine journey is all about.

Now to begin to answer that question….Generally speaking, I like French wines because I prefer the softer, more food friendly, balanced profile of Old World wines better. I am  not particularly fond of a fruit bomb with high alcohol content, which is now a popular topic of discussion. Again, generally speaking, the American palate tends to prefer wines with more punch.  The warmer weather of recent years has resulted in grape harvests with higher sugar and alcohol content, thus favouring the American vs Old World palate.  Many of the wines made from these grapes are “drink now” and reasonably priced, other desirable qualities in a wine today.

In recent years, all regions have been somewhat affected by different weather patterns (climate change?). So, alcohol content has increased a bit across the board. Some French wines that were more like 12% alcohol just 10-12 years ago, are seeing alcohol percentages over 13%. I have Oregon Pinots that range from 12.7% to a little over 14%.  My California Pinots settle in around 14.5%, but I have a 2009 from a high-end California producer that has a whopping 15.6% alcohol content. For me, that bottle will be ageing for some time so it can mellow.

My favorite wines are Pinot Noirs, primarily from Burgundy and, I have discovered, many from Oregon. I find many Oregon Pinot Noirs more closely resemble their Burgundian counterparts than many Pinots in California.  One reason is geographical, as Burgundy and Oregon are at the same general latitude on their respective continents. Since both regions are farther north, they tend to have less hot sun, and the grapes less sugar and therefore, less alcohol, than their California counterparts. That being said, I have also found some exceptions in Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast and on the Central Coast of California. Tantara is one California Pinot I particularly like. And recently, I tasted MacPhail, Pali and JCB (Jean Charles Boisset), exceptional California Pinots, at Pinot Days in Santa Monica.

As for Bordeaux Blends, both Right Bank (Merlot based) and Left Bank (Cabernet Sauvignon based) vs California Cabs or Merlots, the Bordeaux win for me, again, because they tend to be softer and more balanced for my particular palate. I find that I now tend to prefer blends to single varietals in this group.  Although, I like Cabernet Franc as a single varietal from both continents…a more recent discovery on my wine journey. Oh, those contradictions!

Other fabulous wines are the Rhônes that include Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, primarily.  France, where these wines originated, has beautiful specimens. But, the Rhône blends coming from Paso Robles are also excellent. The entire Central coast, where Paso is located, is producing some very nice wines.

Wine Spectator’s top wine of 2010 was the Saxum 2007 James Berry, a “Rhône Ranger”, albeit at 15.6% alcohol.  Paso has had wines in Wine Spectator’s top 100 in the last few years. Our Central Coast wines are worth a strong look, especially since they are generally a good value for quality wines.  (although the aforementioned Saxum is a cult wine and comes at a hefty price). But, more about the Central Coast at another time.

While there has always been a segment of Americans that marry food and wine, some Americans don’t necessarily look at matching what they are drinking to specific foods. But with the advent of more choices of wines, events and cuisine, this is changing. However, someone should always drink what he or she likes and enjoy the overall wine experience.

So, in summary, I tend to prefer French wines (and Old World wines in general) because of their balance, subtleties and earthy characteristics that work very well with food.  And for me, wine is so much better when paired with great cuisine. When a wine is too powerful, it doesn’t work as well with food because it can overtake it. I like the balance that Old World wines provide for me, so that I can enjoy the food and the wine equally. One should complement the other.

There is no right or wrong. What you like is what is more important. A wine is an expression of its terroir…its sense of place.  That place is truly a personal call. And, one that can change as one’s palate evolves by experiencing wines from different parts of the world.  If you have any interest in wine, branch out and try many types from many places.

To say France (Old World) is better than California (New World), or vice versa, is an individual and quite complex claim.  But one other thing French wine does for me is transport me back to my favorite destination, if only for an hour a day.

Until next time….à votre santé

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