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The Old World Is New Again (May 2, 2002)

How would you answer this multiple choice question?

Chardonnay is:

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 of terroir.

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 features.

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 cultural identity."

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.




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