Jane Parkinson on how New World wines are displaying less uniformity than ever
As I type, the 2016 wine grape harvest is well underway in southern hemisphere countries. But despite conventional wisdom, the quality of vintages in this part of the world can be just as inconsistent as those in the classic regions of Europe.
The wine community agonises over each vintage of Old World (European) areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy because it has such a bearing on price—Bordeaux has put itself under serious pressure in recent years by setting greedy prices for inferior vintages—and subsequently, their vintage conditions hit the headlines, giving the impression there is more to discuss.
But that isn’t necessarily true. Sure, European wine regions have variability in vintage quality because the weather is often cool and wet, certainly when compared with the New World. Moreover, European producers face greater restrictions when it comes to the methods and substances that can be employed to smooth out the rough edges of a difficult vintage.
However, today there is less uniformity in the New World than ever before. One explanation is that producers increasingly practice minimum intervention winemaking (fiddling with the wine as little as possible) allowing the wine to be a truer reflection of each harvest.
Although this is an admirable approach, it’s a risky one that’s exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable vintages; stories of erratic weather patterns caused by global warming are becoming more common the world over, not just in Europe.
Furthermore, a climate that’s typically warmer and drier doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easier life for vines or winemakers. The New World has difficulties of its own to face, from uncharacteristically high rainfall to vineyard drought; from sunburnt berries to high sugar levels, the latter causing one of the most dreaded effects of global warming on a wine—higher alcohol levels.
Hot vineyard conditions lessen the acidity and raise the sugar content in grapes. Although this causes them to taste palatably ‘ripe’, with sugar converting to alcohol during fermentation, high sugar levels need to be discouraged to ensure the alcohol doesn’t go through the roof.
How can this be prevented or combatted? In several ways, including planting vineyards at higher altitudes for cooler temperatures and/or harvesting earlier before too much sugar has accumulated.
For once we really should see all winemaking countries in the same light, because they each face their own challenges, year in year out, and yet cleverly address them to make one of the most civilised and delicious drinks around. While the 2016 harvest gets underway in earnest south of the equator, here’s how five countries fared in both hemispheres two years ago.
Five of Borough Market's best New and Old World wines
Leitz Eins Zwei Dry 2014, Germany
Borough Wines, £15.50
In 2014, Germany’s Rheingau region witnessed the fourth hottest year on record since 1885, but that hasn’t diminished the brilliant Johannes Leitz from making this super-delicious and modern, bone-dry riesling. Crisp and floral, not to mention one of the zestiest white wines around.
Corino Barbera d’Alba 2014, Italy
Borough Wines, £15
Italy’s northwest corner of Piedmonte faced turbulent conditions in 2014 from heat spikes in May, to a cool and wet summer. For many producers wines were lighter than usual, but this easy-drinking barbera has serious charm and is bursting with raspberry leaf juiciness and finishes with a black tea savoury spice. It’s a useful red that can match many dishes.
Iona Mr P Pinot Noir 2014, South Africa
The 2014 growing season started slowly in South Africa due to cooler and wetter conditions. Despite this, coastal regions like Elgin—where this is from—fared especially well. Fresh with bright raspberry aromas, smooth textured with red cherry flavours and an uplifting spiciness.
Fox by John Belsham Sauvignon Blanc 2014, New Zealand
The curveball of late season rain in 2014 might have thrown some producers in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, but not John Belsham. Vibrant lime and lemongrass, crunchy kiwi fruit and some tarragon spice to finish. A winner with seafood.
Chapel Down Bacchus Reserve 2014, England
Wine Pantry, £14.99
England’s 2014 harvest started early thanks to a warm spring bringing the grape’s development forward. Bacchus is the English answer to sauvignon blanc, packed with crisp green flavours of herbs and apples. There’s a hint of the tropical too, with peaches and pineapple.