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A Brave New World

Has the language of wine and its demarcation between Old World and New World become outdated? James Lawrence reports

The subject of 'Old World versus New World' can be very divisive among wine professionals: many increasingly feel that this binary categorisation is both outmoded and counterproductive. Indeed, the Court of Master Sommeliers recently banished the terms from its published materials and examination assessments. Announcing its decision via a members’ newsletter circulated in December 2023, the move was reportedly designed to foster “a greater spirit of diversity and inclusion” within this historic organisation. Specifically, it was the connotation that European wines were innately more subtle and terroir-driven that raised the ire of some of its members.

Yet while such arbitrary divisions are clearly ridiculous – some of the world's most egregious fruit bombs are made in southern Europe – the phrase “New World” is arguably still relevant. For most of the 20th century, wine's universal reference point was generally its place of origin. In most cases the grape variety was taken for granted by the trade, leading to endless consumer bafflement about “the difference between Chablis and Chardonnay.”

However, the shift of emphasis from place to grape, driven by California, Australia and New Zealand from the 1980s onward, has been of enormous benefit to non-wine geeks; many consumers still regard the New World as a positive shorthand for fruit forward and easy-to-grasp wine labels. And that, surely, benefits the hospitality sector as well.

New World varietals

“Since our opening in 2021, we have expanded our New World wine selection,” says Julien Beltzung, executive sommelier of The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant. “Customers often request varietal-led bottles, expressing preferences like 'I would a nice Sauvignon' or 'a good Albariño or Malbec'. These guests often recognise the grape variety but may not fully understand how the flavour profile is influenced by its region of origin, as they are more focused on the grape's profile rather than the impact of the microclimate where the vines grow.”

This universal key, Beltzung argues, enables sommeliers to perform their most important role: empowering customers to make an informed choice, guided by their knowledge, passion and expertise. But even the most talented professional needs a starting point in the demystification process, and what better catalyst than widely recognized grape varieties? Even my mother-in-law, an avowed teetotaller, has heard of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.

“ We are very lucky to have some guests who trust us and are keen to come on a journey with us,” reveals Beltzung.

Lucas Reynaud Paligot, assistant head sommelier at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, expands upon the theme. “Customers are interested in the New World and headline varieties - indeed, our wine list places the grape variety at the heart of things, which helps people to find wines that suit their palate,” he says. “Obviously some clients will go for the New World because they are more curious and open to be guided by our sommeliers to find a wine to suit their tastes. These wines also have a broader price range so it gives them the opportunity to find a hidden gem.”

Old World value

Historically, the entry-level section of a tome would provide restaurants with a dependable (albeit low margin) cash flow; the old adage about selecting the second cheapest bottle on the list is as relevant today as it was in the days of Escoffier. Traditionally, this gap was filled by the New World, reinforcing the myth that Europe equals prestige and Australia equals value. Nevertheless, a perusal of contemporary lists indicates that this paradigm is becoming outdated: top Napa Cabernets and Margaret River Chardonnays are hardly cheap - they play a role of increasing importance in the UK's fine-dining sector. Meanwhile, exceptional value can now be found across Europe in declassified wines from iconic appellations (Bourgogne Blanc for example) and lesser-known producers.

“I'm a Francophile, so most of the wines at Firebird are from the Old World. We work with small and independent natural producers from Burgundy, Jura, Champagne, and Loire - those regions never disappoint,” enthuses Anna Dolgushina, sommelier and co-founder of Firebird Soho.

She continues: “Our guests are also willing to explore new regions [in Europe] and grape varieties. They chose red Xinomavro, which is known as the 'Barolo of Greece', a skin-contact Rkatsiteli from Kakheti in Georgia or deeper coloured rosés from Tavel in the south of France. These regions are all producing ridiculously delicious and great value wines.”

Blurring the lines

Meanwhile, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis continues to take its toll. “Recent inflation and increased customs duties on transportation have significantly impacted wine prices. Some bottles have seen a 30% price increase over two years,” explains Julien Beltzung. “This has definitely impacted the way we build our wine parings, seeking cost-effective yet high-quality options, and exploring new boutique wineries and lesser-known appellations that offer competitive prices.”

According to Marcello Colletti, head sommelier at Nobu London Portman Square, “people are spending less than before due to high interest rates, higher duties after Brexit, and increasing prices of wines.” As a result, Colletti is “constantly searching for really good wines worth their price. Nowadays, cost is an important factor for our guests due to inflation.”

Thus providing a selection of delicious drops at non-oligarch prices has become an issue of prime importance in 2024. Twenty-five years ago, that probably meant delving straight into the Casablanca Valley and leaving the posh stuff in the capable hands of our Gallic neighbours. Today, however, the trend is compare and contrast a range of wines, from entry-level to super-premium, from multiple sources. “For me, a great wine list should have known grape varieties at different price levels. For example, a Chardonnay from Chile would be listed at different price points and would accommodate different budget expectations,” agrees Marcello Colletti.

Ultimately, the decision taken by the Court of Master Sommeliers has undeniable logic: Argentina and Australia, for example, have been producing high quality wine for many decades - hardly novices to the business. In fact, Chile's viticultural history began in the mid sixteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores. But this catch-all term, perhaps more relevant to the nascent industries of India and China in the 21st century, remains part of the consumer mindset. Thankfully, we are reaching a point where Europe and its global counterparts are presented as equals, rather than master and subordinates. The UK's talented army of sommeliers have put that tired - and obnoxious - cliché to rest.