Sep 30, 201012:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
It’s All The Same. Then It’s Different.
There is a legal structure of agriculture and vinification used throughout the Old World that always raises eyebrows when discussed in the New World.
The Old World being Europe –– and Europe being what it is –– presents difficult and well-defined concepts for New World newbies to grasp, the New World being America, Australia, New Zealand and just about any place that is not Europe.
Over there, they long ago embraced the concept of bureaucratic meddling, taking it to a high art. Sure, we Americans sometimes feel that we are sliding down that slippery slope of socialism, but we have nothing on those folks whose family heritage goes further back than Columbus’ discovery of land across big water to the west.
In a nod to our frontier spirit, we jealousy guard our freedoms, and over the past 300-plus years some of those freedoms have been eroded for: 1) the benefit of the common good; 2) for the benefit of the institution of government; and/or 3) for benefit of both. Pick one or two or even all three. This is America. You have the freedom.
Anyway, back on topic, in most of the wine regions in Europe, the governing body from the particular wine-producing area tells winegrowers, through regulation and law, what grapes they can grow, where they can grow them and how the vines are to be trimmed, etc., during the growing process.
These governing bodies even tell the growers on what date harvesting is to begin. Further, the tonnage and the resulting must (grape juice) are defined by volume for each particular year. Every grower and winemaker within these legally defined regions must adhere to these laws.
Within the winery, the region’s governing body tells the winemaker what processes are allowed and what the final product must smell and taste like. In the case of specific processes, such as the distillation that takes place in Cognac or the method of making champagne in that specific region, the governing body defines to the letter what can be done in the winery, when it is done and reviews the final outcome from each winery to assure all laws and regulations are specifically followed and that the end product is typical of what is expected from the specific region.
Ask any wine producer in Europe, and he (or sometimes she) will tell you that there are still many aspects of his craft within his control. Ask any wine producer in America or Australia whether that is true, and he (or she) will tell you that working under such a strict system is not for him, as he enjoys the complete freedom to do what he wishes in the field and then fulfill his goals within the winery, again, as he wishes.
On the other hand, all winemakers would also enjoy the opportunity to create wines from centuries-old regions, which long ago made the statement that here is the right place to grow specific grapes.
A classic example of full legal definition is the case of white zinfandel, which never could have been done in Europe but which was easily accomplished to market success after a winery goof in California. Whether that is a good thing or not is fully subject to debate and your personal taste.
What is most amazing about the European model of governance and operation is that wines from the same region, subject to the same standards, from the same vintage can taste so different.
Europe places great emphasis on terroir (a word that is all-inclusive about every physical aspect that surrounds a grapevine and is manifested in the resulting wine and that has no parallel word in our language) and vintage. California and the rest of the New World also like ideal conditions in which to grow grapes, but should something not be just right, there are other processes and additives to make up for Mother Nature’s shortcomings.
The Old World basis for the difference of one wine to another, even though they are located across the street –– or even the next grapevine row –– is the European emphasis on place and time.
The laws of nature, of course, are immutable. Soil drainage, sun facings, rain, heat, cold weather, location on the slope and a dozen or so other factors define the resulting wine, and those natural aspects of growing grapes, the first step in making fine wine, have the same influences whether you are in Paso Robles, Calif., or in the Rhône Valley of France.
And if there are differences in wines that come from neighboring vineyards in the New World, then that is understandable because here the winemaker has many opportunities to express himself, from vineyard management practices to aging in new oak versus 3-year-old barrels. There’s no bureaucrat looking over the shoulder or reading the daily reports.
When, however, the difference in taste comes from highly regulated neighboring properties or producers in the Old World, then that becomes more of a “gee whiz!” moment.
Take the example of great cognac. The differences in the tastes from the same quality levels of one label to another are noticeable. That circumstance is made all the more amazing considering the heavy regulation of the distilled product in that area in western France, where even the last date for cognac producers to legally distill is defined by law, March 31.
Champagne’s example is equally attention-getting. A champagne-maker blends upward of 70 to 300 separate wines from different vintages to make a house style, which remains in the same taste and bouquet profile from year to year. Or champagne houses allow the stated vintage to express itself, bringing something quite unique from that particular year to the palate. And to add further amazement, every year is not a declared vintage in champagne.
The champagne governing authority, CIVC, with input from the champagne producers, will determine if a particular year has the quality and the character that would encourage the producer to create a singular quality champagne for that particular year. 2010 has not been a great year in Champagne, with summer rains and cooler weather during growing season, so no one is quite certain at this point whether 2010 will be a declared vintage.
But the point is that the products from the same area, using the same grape stock, grown at the same time and vinified or distilled within rigid legal structures bring amazingly distinct flavors and aromas. It’s really fun to taste these excellent wines and experience the similarities as well as the differences.
Try your own version of this completely pleasurable exercise. Let me know your experiences.
Champagnes to be tasted together:
Perrier-Jouet and Taittinger
Cognacs to be tasted together:
Hennessey XO and Martell XO