Samui Wining & Dining
New World v. Old World Wines.

Surely, the tired old debate is finally over?


27At the end of the last century, wine enthusiasts loved nothing more than a lengthy debate, over a glass of wine or two, on the merits and pitfalls of the new world wines, versus the old world wines.

    I particularly remember lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussions with die-hard traditionalists, who could not find anything good to say about the unfolding new world wine revolution. And worse still, they seemed to display an irrational fear of it. As if it were somehow a direct threat to their very way of life! The most common sort of charge against the new world’s wine was, ‘industrial’ or ‘chemically manufactured’. The French seemed to collectively perceive the new wine producers as mavericks, flooding the market with ‘soulless, safe wines’, catering to the lowest common denominator. And relying heavily on sweet Chardonnays and jammy Shirazes, with snappy and inappropriate names. Clearly, they had been brought up to believe the traditional image, so loved by the marketing people, of wine being lovingly hand made, by old wine masters, in small picturesque vineyards, nestled on the sunniest banks of the Loire Valley, and bottled under the old Château’s prestigious family name. The newer, more straightforward image, coming from countries like Australia, of high tech, high volume wine being fermented scientifically, in computer controlled, vast stainless steel vats, was an affront to these old-fashioned, over-romantic wine lover’s sensibilities. But this was the reality of wine making, by that time, anyway. And the groundbreaking innovations were shaping the future for wine production everywhere. Although, there was some truth in the argument that many new world producers were playing it safe with bold, fruit-dominated wines. There were, however, many notable exceptions. By the 1990s, the USA, Australia and New Zealand were already setting the bar high, making some real wine gems. The standard of wine today is of a far higher standard than ever before, largely thanks to the new technologies and systems introduced back then. It’s easy to forget just how much bad wine was sloshing about, only twenty years ago.

      During these old-versus-new discussions, I was often in the position of having to be pragmatic, talking with diners at the hotel, I had to be polite. So when confronted with a stereo-typical traditionalist, bemoaning the lack of ‘classic’ wines on the list (even now, unless money is no object, it’s never an easy feat to have the big name Bordeauxs or Burgundies on wine lists in Thailand), I would resort to my favourite, and most diplomatic, automotive analogy: Whereas the old world wines are undoubtedly the Bentleys and Jaguars of the wine world, the new world wines are the Ferraris and Porsches. Occasionally, I would even win a small victory, receiving a grudgingly made comment that, when accompanying a delicate fish dish, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was comparable to Chablis.


It’s easy to forget just how much
bad wine was sloshing about,
only twenty years ago.


       It’s interesting, looking back on those days, how seriously we all took the debate. Today, it’s not even relevant. The old world wine producing countries have adopted the, once radical, scientific technologies. And some of the newer countries’ highly successful wines are now considered classics in their own rights. Wine consumption worldwide has grown exponentially in this period, with high demand for the full spectrum, as never seen before. And the French should never have felt so threatened - their best vintages of famous name Châteaus always sell out. And the appeal and respect for the old traditions, lives on untarnished. Old Europe, of course, continues to hold on to its precious Appellation Controlée, although that system is now losing much of its gravity with wine experts, along with most of the old world’s, now forgotten, geographical wine strategies. We are in a new era of wine making and consumption, most of the old rules have become meaningless. The screw cap versus natural (or, God forbid, plastic) cork argument was won a long time ago. In Thailand, we are definitely benefiting from the explosion of consistently good quality, ready to drink (cellaring in the tropics is not a good option) new world wines. Prices are helped by economies of scale, but exorbitant import tax rates remains the one bugbear for local wine drinkers. And because of high prices, there is only a limited Thai market for fine, old world classics. Mainly in exclusive restaurants, within Bangkok’s five star hotels, with well-heeled business clientèle, entertaining on generous company expense accounts.

       Thankfully, these days, we are all more relaxed about our wine. After all, it’s one of life’s simple pleasures, there to be enjoyed for what it is. You drink your wine how you like it (and with whatever food), and I’ll take mine just how I like it. A light red wine, such as Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, together with grilled salmon, is now one of my favourite combinations to order at a restaurant. And what’s more, I’ll stick with my old analogy: Bentleys and Jaguars are still classic cars, full of character, quality and craftsmanship, loved by their stately owners. And Ferraris and Porsches still excite their owners with high performance, superb handling and technological refinement. Neither is better, or worst, than the other, both have their valued place in the automotive world. Just as the best examples of New World and Old World wines are both worthy of equal appreciation by connoisseurs and enthusiasts.


Peter James


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