The Old World Is New Again (May 2, 2002)
How would you answer this multiple choice question?
a) Another name for white wine
b) A branded wine
c) A village in Burgundy
d) The world's most popular white variety
e) A grape used in the production of Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé,
Montrachet and Champagne.
There are three correct answers.(c,d and e). That many people believe
Chardonnay is a synonym for white wine, or at least a brand, proves
how the New World has triumphed over the Old. This perspective on
the wine world translates to financial success in the marketplace.
At a recent conference in Siena on "The future of wine between
terroir, technology and globalization," Australian writer and
winemaker James Halliday pointed out: "For all but the last
15 of the past 2,000 years Europe produced over 90 per cent of the
world's wine and accounted for all but 4 per cent (in value) of
global wine exports. Between 1988 and 1999 global wine trade increased
by more than 11 per cent in value, the New World's share rose to
16 per cent. Studies in Australia forecast that by 2005 the New
World share of global exports will grow to 29 per cent and that
of the Old World will fall to 64 per cent."
European wines are named after their geographical location. The
Californian wine industry decided to call their wines after the
grape from which they were made. The idea was to simplify wine for
the North American consumer.
Initially, this made life easy, except when consumers began to
see California Chardonnay priced at $5 and at every price point
up to $50 and above. Then, when other New World wines from Australia,
New Zealand and Chile with their different taste profiles began
to turn up in the market, the concept of Chardonnay became even
more confusing. If the label said Chardonnay, why didn't the wine
taste consistently like Chardonnay, just as Heinz Baked Beans always
taste the same?
Those careful New World producers who cut their yields and aged
their Chardonnay in French oak had to differentiate their product
from those who made industrial quantities from bought-in Chardonnay
aged in stainless steel and spiked with oak chips. And they did
it by reverting to the Old World concept of place. To distinguish
themselves from the bulkmeister competition they began to stress
the appellation of origin of their fruit and to flirt with the notion
Terroir is one of those French words that takes a paragraph
to explain. It is not just the soil in which the vine is planted.
It is a micro-cosmos that involves happenings above and below the
ground at varying depths and heights. Terroir takes in density of
planting, sun, rain, wind, fog, frost, exposure, drainage and the
effect on the vine of local bodies of water, forests and other natural
The Europeans have long argued that terroir makes the wine. That
is why two contiguous vineyards in Burgundy can produce wines that
taste slightly different or why one Bordeaux château is a
First Growth and its neighbour is not. As Paul Draper of California's
Ridge Vineyards put it: "To be considered a fine terroir, a
site must produce a wine of high quality that demonstrates over
the years a consistent, distinctive character derived from the fruit,
not the winemaking…For many of the large producers (terroir)
is a marketing term and has lost virtually all meaning."
At that conference in Siena, speaker after speaker from both sides
of the Atlantic endorsed the concept of terroir over technology.
James Halliday pointed out that while world consumption of all
wine is falling, that of premium, super-premium, ultra-premium and
icon wines is rising – a sentiment echoed by Emanuela Stucchi
Prinetti, President of Chianti Classico's Black Rooster Consortio.
She remarked on the "extraordinary growth of recent years in
demand for typical products, or those products that are directly
linked with a particular territory and possess a history and a strong
As wine quality improves, the concept of terroir, whether formally
classified or not, plays an increasingly important role, and here
the Old World, led by France, enjoys an enduring advantage over
the New World, thanks to appellation controls and centuries of history.
Paul Draper expressed the view that technology, from California
to Bordeaux to Australia, has introduced wine processing equipment
that has lessened or eliminated the existing or potential effect
of terroir in many fine wines.
So, ultimately, the wine culture of the Old World will triumph
to the benefit of all who cherish good wine. Technology can rescue
a poor vintage but it can't turn a Bourgogne Blanc into a Bâtard-Montrachet
– even if it is called a Chardonnay.