A taste of Old World style from the New World

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital (www.enjoygourmet.com.cn) and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via jcolumn@enjoygourmet.com.

Wine geeks often have their own lingo that may have little meaning to most normal people. Two of the most fashionable expressions are Old World and New World.

What exactly do these terms mean? I bet many of the wine lovers who frequently articulate their love or disdain for Old or New World wines would have a hard time accurately explaining the distinction between the two.

Etymologically speaking the Old World includes cultures that first appeared in the Bronze Age and developed and interacted mostly between the 45th and 25th parallels. These include the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and China.

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci first coined the term New World to describe the recently discovered Americas. In wine parley, they mean something else.

In the wine world, Old World refers to the original producing areas of wines, most notably Europe, the Middle and Near East and parts of North Africa. These regions have been making wine for thousands of years.

The New World which includes the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and most of Asia that have been making wine for centuries or less. This grouping is far from perfect, as winemaking in China may actually predate that of Europe and the Middle East.

Stylistically, Old World wines are considered to be lighter, more restrained, more acidic or tannic and lower in alcohol while their New World counterparts are riper, more concentrated and higher in alcohol.

This is in part due to the warmer climates of the New World as well as different winemaking techniques and practices. Old World producers traditionally emphasized the land, known as the concept of terroir while New World producers emphasized the grape variety. Old World producers were guided by tradition and faced more stringent regulations while New World producers were free to experiment and break the rules.

But distinctions between the wine worlds are lessening.

As recently as a decade ago I would give some credence to those who state, “I prefer Old World wines over New World wines.” But today these blanket statements are losing veracity as an increasing number of New World producers are making lighter, fresher and more stylish wines in cool climates while Old World producers are making increasingly heady, internationally-styled wines.

This week’s iDeal section delves into Chinese dishes named after specific cities or places. This practice of things being named after a specific place is usually associated with the Old World. Chablis, Chianti and Rioja are all good examples. However, many New World regions and producers are emphasizing geographic origins and one of my favorite wine regions make wines that combine attributes of both the New and Old Worlds.

Margaret River

Not too long ago, the Margaret River region in Western Australia was best known for its pristine landscape and superb surfing, not wine. Although wine has been made in Western Australia since 1829, most had an undesirable combination of excessive alcohol and cheap, jammy fruit.

In the 1970s a handful of producers started to invest time and money to make premium wines.

Understanding that Margaret River is surrounded on three sides by the sea, the Southern Ocean to the south, the Indian Ocean to the west and Geographe Bay to the north, and has a maritime climate and gravelly soils, not terribly dissimilar to Bordeaux.

These early quality-minded producers concentrated on Bordeaux varieties. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Not long afterward a few producers, most notably Leeuwin Estate, started making Chardonnay of exceptional balance and distinction. Soon other producers followed suit and expanded their winemaking repertoire to include world class Riesling, Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

The one word that best expresses the style of Margaret River wines is elegance. These are not wines that have the power and concentration of the titans from the Barossa Valley and other regions in South Australia.

Instead they offer balance and elegance reminiscent of the Old World. As such the best examples of Margaret River wines are beautiful testaments that not all New World wines are fruity behemoths that lack expressions of terroir. Because of their elegance and balance, Margaret River wines are very food friendly and lovely companions to many classic Chinese dishes. Try a Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend with Shanghai style roasted fish with baby scallions and deep-fried yellow croaker fish.

The Chardonnays go very well with classic pork, like lion’s head meatballs stuffed with minced crab. The Cabernet Merlot blends match nicely with Mongolian lamb while the Shiraz can stand up to moderately spicy Sichuan and Hunan meat treats.

When choosing a Margaret River, avoid 2006 and pick one of the later vintages that are all uniformly quite good. Also, go for producers such as Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle, Xanadu and Moss Wood.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: The principal Margaret River red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir while the most important whites include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chenin Blanc.

Key term: Heady is a term used in the wine world to describe wines that are high in alcohol.