Do you prefer old world wines or new world wines? Evidently bored by redundancy of this fairly common conversational exercise between wine enthusiasts and professionals alike, winemaker Doug Margerum of the Margerum Wine Company, whom I met yesterday while he was stopping through Denver, retorted by raising the obvious, though often forgotten, reality that really aren’t all wines from the same world after all? What does this bifurcation of old vs. new even mean after a while?
He raises a good point. The advancements in modern technology have made this argument nearly obsolete. No longer does the country of origin dictate the lyrics of the liquid.
This happens to be one of those places where language and wine meet—a space that undoubtedly is the foundation of wine’s ultimate allure for me. At times, language allows us to articulate the experience of wine—the actual sensory project at work on our palate as well as the intellectual residuum that remains in our memory thereafter.
Unfortunately, language also has a tendency to fail us. Or, perhaps, ‘limit’ us is a better way to ‘word’ this. Every line of work has specialized rhetoric, whether it is law, construction, or education. The wine industry is no exception. In fact, language becomes the medium we all cling to in the attempt to give shape to the abstract experience of sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. The problem arises when we come to agree on a coded concept—like ‘old world’ and ‘new world’—and it consequently cripples our understanding of a wine by tainting us with bias and preconceived notions of what life is like inside the bottle. If one is a self-proclaimed ‘old world’ consumer, he or she might overlook the complexities and nuances of, say, a Chilean Cabernet or a Columbia Valley Merlot simply because it is ‘new world.’
Nowadays, it is less about which world the vine is from and more about its individual biography—from the soils in which it was planted, the rain it did or did not feel, the sun that did or did not saturate it, the berries that were produced from it, the care in which those berries were handled at harvest, and the specific decisions the winemaker made after taking them from the vines so as to encourage a particular song that was yet unsung beneath the skin.
It is difficult not to get too binary at this point, for in many ways, it seems the final product does fall into one of two categories: and old world style or a new world style. And that’s okay. We all have a preference. What’s interesting, though, is that by opening our minds to every wine that comes our way, we find that many old world wines demonstrate new world flavors like big fruit and new oak, while many new world wines strive for an older restrained style composition of soft fruit, earth, and mineral qualities.
Such is Margerum’s 2006 Margerum M5—a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise. All of which are from old world Rhone but cultivated in new world Santa Barbara soils. The result was startling. I was enamored with the nose. It immediately took me back in time, far from the new world. Bright red berries claimed the initial contact, but it quickly was supported by deep notes of tobacco, dust, minerals and pepper.
I was on a dirt road…in a field…far from here.
It tapped into every part of me that is continually pulled in by traditional French, Italian, and Spanish reds. These are wines that leave an impression on my mind…wines that are so much more than wine.
Language is necessary. Even if we tried to eliminate this great debate of old world versus new world, we would struggle to explain the dominant style of a wine without it. My suggestion: get familiar with old world and new world styles. You are allowed a preference. But don’t disregard a wine based on its birthplace. Every wine has a story. Some are just more interesting to us than others.