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Old World

March 7, 2014

Sailing is in my blood. Give me the wind and a piece of canvas and I can be at peace with the world. It’s one of the greatest gifts I ever got from my father. Sailing was in his blood too.

As such, I have never had any interest in going on a cruise ship. Those monstrous vessels that need massive engines to propel themselves and their revelers through the waters are the antithesis of everything I hold dear about life on the water. I like to refer to them as Botels. It’s a combination of boat and motel. If I were being hospitable I might say boat and hotel. But I hear that most cabins are fairly small and lacking in amenities. So let’s say motel.

Still, it’s difficult not to frame this sabbatical year at the Institute for Advanced Study as if it were an extended cruise. But only the best parts of the experience, as we are not trapped on a disease riddled ship. We have a cafeteria where one can expect lunches to include the likes of roasted rabbit, duck confit, and wild boar stew. There is a 24 hour gymnasium just a few doors away. Every day at three o’clock is time for coffee and cookies. There are all you can eat buffet dinners, weekly yoga classes, concerts, seminars, readings, etc.

Did I mention the wine tastings?

Yesterday was a particularly interesting wine tasting class that divided wine into two basic categories. Those of the old world and those from the new world.

For all intents and purposes, the old world represents Europe and the Mediterranean. And that’s fair. They’ve been at it for longer than everyone else. Everyone else in this case is North America, South America, South Africa, and Australia.

Do you see the continent that’s missing? Asia must have the ability to grow wine grapes. It’s huge. This is a mystery that is probably worth exploring at some other time.

Last night’s tasting did a good job at proving the internal conceit of the tasting: fundamentally, that old world wines are funkier and new world wines are fruitier. Had I no prior knowledge of wine, I would have walked away from the tasting thinking that new world wines were not for me.

However, I know that not to be the case.

The racy acidity of rieslings from New York’s Finger Lakes are fantastic. I’ve long loved the unoaked citrusy sauvignon blanc’s from Northern California, and there plenty of West Coast pinot noirs that posses a delicacy and finesse which is simply enchanting.

These wines were not on display last night.

The wine tasting was well constructed to prove a stereotypical notion that european wines taste of a place and new world wines taste like overripe fruit and oak. Like all stereotypes it’s not entirely wrong. There is indeed some truth to be found within it. But it would be a mistake to believe that it’s a universal truth. As a demonstration of that point though, the selections worked remarkably well.

The Alois Lagaeder Pinot Grigio from Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy had a haunting nose. It was musky and damp with a bit of flowers and a good dose of minerality. And it was far more interesting than the ripe peach flavors coming from the glass of Napa’s Swanson Vineyards Pinot Grigio.

At about $15 a bottle, I would gladly reach for the Italian wine just to have the opportunity to sit, ponder, and enjoy its complex aroma some more.

While those two wines were relatively similar the tasting very purposefully tried to show the wide range of chardonnay. Instead of a rich, well oaked Meursault, we were presented with a lean acidic Chablis to taste against a heavily oaked Sonoma chardonnay from Arrowwood. Granted, the different wines served different masters, and if I were eating scallops in a cream sauce, the Sonoma wine would clearly be the winner. However, once again, I preferred the minerality of the Chablis. But honestly, I probably wouldn’t pay $20 for either, unless there were raw oysters involved. Then I would pick up the Chablis in a heartbeat.

What was remarkable, though, is how much the Sonoma wine smelled and tasted like my memories of California. This is a taste profile that lots of people love. If they didn’t, Kendall Jackson wouldn’t sell so much wine. Most American wine drinkers go weak in the knees for something bursting with tropical fruit and a shit-ton of vanilla and butter.

Likewise, in a tale of two pinot noirs the old world Maison Roche de Bellene proved to have a more complex aroma than the juicy Wente Vineyards from Monterey. And the spiciness of the old world syrah from Alain Voge Cotes du Rhone in Cornas far exceeded the jamminess of the Patchwork shiraz from Barossa Valley in Australia.

Without a doubt, I walked away from the tasting last night with a much greater appreciation for old world wines.

But it’s not that simple. Thanks to the tremendous influence of wine critics like Robert Parker, many old world wines have adopted an “international” style. And not all new world wines are so heavily influenced by oak as those in the tasting. Still, it’s a good reminder that even as new world wines get better, the old world still matters. They’ve been making wine for longer than we’ve been a country. And after several hundreds of years making the same product, they’ve learned a few things about taking their grapes and turning them into something special.

There’s good wine made here in the U.S. But don’t forget to check out the stuff from where wine has been made since the dawn of civilization. They have some good tricks up their sleeves. Being adventurous is its own reward.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dave S permalink
    March 8, 2014 5:33 pm

    “proving the internal conceit of the tasting” Lovely phrase!

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