Wine and language, two very complex organisms, first and foremost predetermined by the land from which they’ve come. Soil and birthplace. Climate is so very important too, in ripening fruit and developing speech. Weather and pedigree. Then there are the clones, genetic variants of a cultivar, or in language, slang and urban/rural diction. Variety and dialect. The study of wine (oenology) is very much like the study of language (linguistics). It’s all in the accents, in articulation and tonality, in aroma, taste and texture.
Wine is generally divided into Old and New World styles, old school versus new wave. Though many New World wines have bested Old World stalwarts in blind tastings, are those results more than just a matter of taste? Old World varieties of a common region who have been cohabiting side by side exhibit a wide assortment of accents. New World clones from disparate backgrounds that have been living together for just a few generations show similar accents.
Old World stereoisomer stereotypes suggest that if your wine smells like vanilla, it was likely aged in American oak. Got flint and steel? Chablis. Brioche and yeast? Champagne. All this may be true but the grand wines within a particular growing area like Chablis, Champagne, the Rhône Valley, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Tuscany and Piedmont might share and yet bogart an infinite number of subtleties and dominant traits, each specific to the monopole, villages, indicazione geografica tipica, or appellation of origin. Napa Cabernet, whether from Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena or Howell Mountain, shares a commonality and decreased peculiarity so much more so than counterparts in the communes on the Left Bank in Bordeaux, including Paulliac, St-Estèphe, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux and St. Julien.
New World Chardonnay growing sites produce less delineation as compared to the various lieu-dites in Burgundy. Niagara is beginning to enter into an Old World state of mind, so now winemakers, and by extension wine geeks, are posturing over micro-terroirs; Niagara-on-the-Lake, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment, St. David’s Bench, Lincoln Lakeshore, etc. While many will disagree, if you consider growing sites as circles within a Venn Diagram, the shared subtleties get buried or muddled within the common areas. The lines may be drawn but the web is tangled.
In Old World locales such as France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal, the sustained adjacency of wine regions ought to carry considerable weight against differences in accents, while in a vast but small growing area like Canada, the relative isolation of wine regions ought to encourage regional intonations. Yet comparatively speaking, there is a great deal of similar speak among Canada’s various cool climate wines. So, the question begs. Has the maturity of Canadian vines and its isolated industries increased or decreased the diversity of dialects?
If you stood with one foot in a Niagara vineyard and the other in Prince Edward County, you might be disappointed to find that the geology, climate and wine accent are nearly indiscernible. A wine patriot might disagree with that statement with reverence or indifference, yet the average wine consumer would be hard pressed to intuit the subtlest of idiosyncrasies. Even in the case of, let’s say, the temperature disparity between a St. David’s Bench vineyard and one from the Queenston Road, as a winemaker, who are you speaking to anyway?
The wine world has attempted the vinous equivalent of heteroglossia, “a blending of world views through language that creates complex unity from a hybrid of utterances.” This heteroglossia is an abstract convenience for the benefit of geographical oenophiles. In the New World (especially), we are dealing with huge generalities. To say that each viticultural area is singularly unique from another is to suggest that one region’s accent starts where another one ends. This is simply not true.
The argument is no longer about good and bad, natural and synthetic, Old and New World. We’re not talking about a Roman Paradox here. In a short period of time it seems we have gone from saying “there’s a remarkably great deal of homogeneity in wine today” to now, “some wines are so over the top they could only be from that place.” A recent California Pinot Noir, heretofore known as “he who shall not be named” laid insult and depression upon a group of tasters. Pushing 16 per cent alcohol by volume and thicker than a McFlurry, this Pinot could not have been from just anywhere. Only the hot California sun and heavy winemaker’s hand could have produced such an utterly undrinkable, faux-chocolate, simulated berry shake.
Special thanks to Bill Bryson, who’s good read “Mother Tongue” was the inspiration for this column. Here are six examples of really fine wine, from the Old and the New World, each expressive of a particular set of accents, out of a specific place.
André Blanck Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2011 (626606, $14.95) is high on lime citrus and heavy in stones, so much more so than in ’09 and ’10. Green apple in tart tonality, lean and mean. Much juicier and riper to taste, with the faintest lees note to ground it firmly on Alsatian terrain ferme. Love this designation. Same vintage release from a year ago. 89 @drinkAlsace
Pillitteri Estates Viognier 2011 (330894, $19.95) from 20+ year old estate vines is really quite pretty. Honeysuckle and white flower aromas with a taste of honey dew, tangy mango fruit, creamy and soft, and a hint of white pepper. Will look for it to flesh a bit in a year or so. 88 @Pillitteriwines
Daniel Lenko Estate Winery Old Vines Chardonnay 2010 (352328, $22.95) punches its ticket to Niagara stardom but a toast and punch down period is the requiem to mellow before the fruit can truly and fully be assessed. It’s certainly large, inviting and warm, a cedar cottage with its hearth flaming and crackling. Borrows a page from Quarry Road’s handbook and takes risks, if ambitiously over-seasoning a bissel. The late buttery seafood note is striking and just makes you want to suck back a bucket of claw. Must pay heed to Lenko’s uncompromising winemaking. Were you to ask me what 10 Ontario Chardonnay would I buy, in any vintage, to study, follow the evolution and ultimately learn about cool climate Chardonnay, this Lenko OV 2010 would be a must. 91 @daniel_lenko
Greenlane Estate Winery Cabernet 2010 (winery, $14.95) combines Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (80/20) fruit in demurred Niagara/Vineland modulation for full, soft and silky effect. Black pepper in a key of fire-roasted sweet capsicum, anise and gun flint are met by the plasticity of black and red berries and cherries. Deal. 88 @GreenLaneWinery
Zema Estate Cluny Cabernet Merlot 2008 (325910, $26.95) hollers modernity, in oxy-toffee, blueberry pie, eucalyptus and smoldering earth. Bordeaux fettle yet GSM-like in mineral meets lush fruit. Frantic verve in acidity, crazy actually and certainly no fruit bomb. Almost citrus spiked, punchy and grainy on the finish. Requires patience. Intriguing Coonawarra. 90 @ZemaEstate
Château La Croix De Gay 2009 (192955, $51.95) is flat-out delicious. Grilled meat, licorice, big black fruit, raspberry, Merlot to the max and yet a very affordable Pomerol ’09. At $52 you may not find a better deal. Tannic heft deep as a coal mine, where mineral meets herbal bondage. Very long and true. 92
Good to go!