Most of the vineyards in the New World are in hotter climates than their European homeland; consequently, with more dependable sunshine, the grapes are riper, resulting in wines which have a higher alcohol level and which are more full-bodied and fruitier. It has been argued, not without a certain level of Eurocentric snobbery as well as a certain level of truth, that New World wines reflect their culture—being more “loud” and “brash” than their more subtle and discreet European counterparts. In some ways, this has been exacerbated by Robert Parker, the American wine critic who has encouraged more full-bodied and fruit-forward wines in the New World.
Fruit Bombs: As discussed elsewhere, I have mixed feelings concerning Robert Parker. Initially, many Californian winemakers were striving to reproduce French wines and to recreate the same tastes. It was Parker who told them to be true to their terroir and to make wines which reflected the local conditions. “If you want to make French wines,” he said, “go to France.” This is most clearly shown in the difference between Chardonnay wines from Burgundy and California. The Californian Chardonnays are much more oaky, alcoholic, fruitier, and full-bodied. The Burgundies are far more subtle and lighter-bodied, exhibiting more herb, earth, mineral, and floral components. Parker is correct in encouraging the Californians to be themselves and not slavishly copy the French; it is just that his opinion is so influential that the pendulum has now swung the other way, and all Chardonnays are becoming the “hedonistic fruit bombs” that Parker so enjoys. The average alcohol content for European reds is about 12.5 percent while in the New World, 14 percent is more common.
Many Europeans argue that New World fruit-bombs overwhelm food, and that the lack of acidity and tannins fails to cleanse the palette while eating. However, while Europeans have always associated wine with food, a 2011 survey by Wine Opinions (www.wineopinions.com), found that most of the wine consumed by Americans is not drunk as part of a meal but rather alone as a cocktail, before or after a meal. So the harmonious balance of acid, tannins, and fruit, which pairs so well with food, is less important when the wines are to be enjoyed by themselves and the soft-rounded pleasures of the fruit can stand alone.
Annual variations and vintages: One of the big differences between annual vintages in Europe is rainfall. Lack of rain or too much rain, or rain falling at the wrong time, can destroy a whole year’s crop. This is why the quality of the wine from major European regions varies from year to year, and why the vintage of a European wine is of such importance. This is much less of a problem in the New World, where seasons are much more predictable and consistent. Much of Europe’s wine country is in the Mediterranean climate zone, with unpredictable rainfall and climate fluctuations. Much of California, however, like Australia and Chile, is desert. As early as 1962, Professor Albert J. Winkler at UC Berkeley had analyzed the temperature and climate of California’s grape-producing regions, and divided them into what are still referred to as the five Winkler Zones. Within those five zones, the annual rainfall and temperatures are fairly consistent, and thus predictable, by the winegrower. Rain does not usually fall during the growing season, and so water is provided, through irrigation, by the farmers. This means that the farmer has much more control over the growth and development of the vine, and it also means that his wines can be consistent from year to year. The only potential downside to this is drought. As this book is being written, California is introducing drastic laws to restrict car washing and lawn watering in order to adjust to the fourth year of severe drought; but so far, in mid 2017, Californian winegrowers have not yet been affected.
Varietals: With over two thousand years of experimentation and experience, Europeans had learned which grape varietals grew best in which region, and thus the concept of terroir and regional styles developed, most especially in France. Consumers were aware of the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, for example, or Champagne and Chablis. New World winegrowers, however, had to learn by trial and error, and so would plant a wide variety of different vines in the same geographic area. There was no concept of terroir, and the difference between a Napa and Sonoma red wine was a meaningless concept. Nobody had heard of either place; there was no tradition or reputation behind either name. Winegrowers, therefore, referred back to the French classics, and would label their red wines “Burgundy” and their white wines “Chablis,” for example. Initially, most New World wines were simply imitations of Old World wines, and so in addition to Californian Burgundy and Chablis, there was Australian Sherry and South African Port.
The formation of the European Union in the 1970s gave increased legal power to European winemakers who objected to the indiscriminate use of regional names like Champagne and Burgundy. At the same time, wine writers like Frank Schoonmaker and winemakers like Robert Mondavi encouraged the Alsace tradition of classifying and labeling the wines by their constituent grape. Consequently, for the past forty years, all New World wines have been identified by their grape varietal rather than their terroir. Today, even some French wines are identifying the varietal on the label in order to compete in the US market.