Tim James: New and Old Worlds of Wine
By Tim James, 9 May 2022
Mundus Novus was the title of a 1503 pamphlet by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was thus not only to give his name to America but also to popularise “New World” as a designation for (essentially) the Western Hemisphere. Africa, Europe and Asia – the continents known to Europe before it learnt of the Americas – were the “Old World”. I’m not at all sure how or when these terms came to be widely applied in popular descriptions of wine – I’d guess that someone used it for Californian wine when that started becoming better known to the centre of the world’s wine market in the mid 20th century. But by the latter decades of the century the concept of “New World wine” was being applied (rather patronisingly at first) to all significant wine-producing countries outside of Europe: all of both North and South America, South Africa, Australasia.
The generalisation covered such things as viticulture (eg planting densities), the differing importance ascribed to origin (appellations or regional blending) and to varietalism; and, more widely, to traditional versus scientific approaches. But mostly it was applied by wine drinkers to the styles of wine seen to be made, on the one hand, in classic Europe and, on the other, in the rest of the world. New World wine was seen as more accessible, fruitier, purer and cleaner, riper and more alcoholic, usually oakier, generally bolder and showier. Etc.
Those people who have been around for a while will remember, when South Africa rejoined the world after 1994, the debates about whether its winemaking should associate itself with one or the other of those broad “styles”. Perhaps the most popular, hopeful formulation had it that stylistically Cape wine was somewhere in between those of the New and Old Worlds.
It was always only a moderately useful distinction anyway, anywhere. It certainly became less and less so. Many of the classic European appellations adjusted their winemaking practices to appeal to, especially, the lucrative North American market, which had grown accustomed to the riper richness and power of Californians (reds above all), and to the key critics that drove sales. And much of the “New World” toned down its winemaking as Robert Parker’s influence started to wane, and, anyway, were becoming increasingly committed to the old European ideal of expressing terroir.
The categories were discussed in passing at a tasting at Glenelly in Stellenbosch to launch the 2016 Lady May Bordeaux-style blend, organised by winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain and CEO Nicolas Bureau, grandson of owner May-Eliane de Lencquesaing. (Christian has already reported on a tasting he had – he was not part of the small group I was – including most of the same wines as we had; as I differ from him in my opinions of some of the wines, it might be worth a further report.)
With the first flight (we knew the five wines included, but not the order, and tasted blind), what was in fact notable was that there was nothing notably New or Old World about the wines, although there were two from Bordeaux amongst them. Except in one case – the extraordinary Ridge Montebello from California, which was so very spicy-oaky (as noted by most of us, I think) that I at least thought it a pretty unpleasing drink. I did remark, though, that, having had a few most impressive older vintages of Montebello, I’d rate this wine higher tasted sighted than blind, as I can (almost) believe that it will eventually resolve its oak problem, given that it has plenty else going for it.
The wines were pretty youthful still, and most evidenced oak, in fact, including the Glenelly. It is a big wine, but quite refined, with great depth of dark fruit, firm tannins and a dry finish. Many of us at the tasting remarked, in fact, on the pleasure of all five wines being properly dry on the finish. I’ve always appreciated that aspect of Lady May – unfortunately, far too many local reds, especially the cab-based ones, are marred by a defnite lingering sweetness. If you’re going to have an alcohol level over 14%, you really need to keep the residual sugar below 2 g per litre to avoid that sweetness. The 2016 is a very good wine. Really it needs at least another five years in bottle, but it is no great sin to drink it sooner. (We later drank the 2010 at lunch and it showed no sign of tiring.)
The two Bordeaux wines were good, if not resolutely classic; like Christian I preferred the Smith-Haut-Lafitte, which was notably elegant, supple and serious, and I enjoyed its herbal twist. Interestingly, the most classic and elegantly restrained of the wines was Italian – the magnificent Sassicaia 2016, the pioneer SuperTuscan. It was the lightest and purest-fruited of the flight, yet gorgeously complex; for me the standout in the tasting, rather to my surprise.
The second flight was emphatically “New World” in origin at least. The wines were less oaky than those of the first flight, interestingly enough, though they were also, on the whole, a touch sweeter-fruited. That characterisation included, for me, the Lady May 2017, which seemed to me almost over-ripe – unlike Christian, I preferred the 2016. But I’d like to try it again, as perhaps either it or I was not performing at best. I agreed more with Christian about the delights of the Mount Eden 2016 blend, from a cool corner of California. The three Australians we had were comparatively disappointing – the Yalumba Menzies Cab 2016 in a traditional big, rich, ultra-ripe oak way, Wirra Wirra Vintage Bell 2017 lighter and more charming and its fruitiness ending dry; Cherubino River’s End was probably the lightest wine of the whole line-up, in terms of alcohol, and with no egregious oak, but didn’t escape that rather vulgar fuitiness that so many Australians reds still seem to flaunt.
So, some of that differentiation between New and Old Worlds in wine clearly still persists on occasion – as a tendency, though sufficiently far from a valid generalisation to be useful. But it’s a rather irritating way to categorise wines, I think, and I shall try to avoid it. Last fling: yes, Glenelly Lady May does straddle the two “worlds” successfully; and it is a very fine wine. Though, personally, I’d prefer if it put the one foot down a bit more firmly in the Old, with grapes picked a little less fulsomely ripe.
By the way, if you can get to Stellenbosch this Friday (13 May) with a full pocket, Glenelly is hosting a grand “Lady May Launch and Bordeaux Style Celebration Dinner” in its Vine Bistro, with these international wines in support. At R3 650 it’s a lot of money, but promises to be good value (those foreigners are very much more pricey than Lady May’s R700-odd), and with a splendid menu from chef Christophe Dehosse. Check at the Bistro (email or phone) to see if there are still tables available.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.