Back to the Old School
by John Szabo MS, with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato
John Szabo, MS
WineAlign heads back to the (old) school this week, as we take a look at superficially nebulous, variously interchangeable terms old school, traditional, and Old World, as they often relate to wine, and recommend our top old school picks from the September 19th release. And there are lots of them, a couple dozen to be precise (it’s apparently a big school). So if you’re a student of the old school, read on. If new school, modern, New World wine is your alma mater, wait for next week when (not so newcomer) David Lawrason schools us on what those terms mean and how you make wine to fit them, before we offer our favourite recently released examples.
For as long as I can remember, the wine universe has been broadly cleaved into Old World and New World. Geographically, the distinction is pretty clear: Old World refers to European wine, or as I like to point out, wine from colonizing countries (and we could throw in the Republic of Georgia and a few other more ancient producers). New World refers to just about everywhere else (mainly countries that were colonized by Europeans, who brought grapevines).
But from the beginning, the distinction also took on a stylistic dimension: wines made in the Old and New Worlds smelled and tasted fundamentally different. This distinction is still around today. Master Sommelier candidates, for example, are asked during their blind tasting exams whether they believe the wine is old world or new world when drawing initial conclusions. It’s not a quality judgement, but simply a style difference, as, say, a trained eye can distinguish between Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. In wine, the stylistic differences are born in part from climate, and more importantly, from winemaking philosophy.
Imagine European wine in the 19th century. It was largely a daily beverage, not a luxury commodity. There was little technological exchange between winegrowers in different regions, let alone countries. The old school was frequently no school. Traditional techniques were applied, in other words, what had always been done before. The aim was often to maximize what little vineyard land you had. Wines were made from relatively high-yielding vineyards, harvested early to ensure nothing was lost to rot or hungry animals, each bunch squeezed to get as much juice as possible, tossed in an open vat so that wild, sometimes deviant yeasts could perform their magic, than stashed in some kind of porous vessel, usually old wood vats of sketchy hygienic condition, for as long as was necessary to soften the harsh tannins and ripping acids, sometimes years. Bottle-aged wines were as rare as the bottles to keep them in.
Oxygen, thus, was a major production protagonist, present at every stage of a wine’s evolution. Delicate fruit quickly faded (oxidized) into much more earthy, savoury, dusty, herbal-spicy, essentially non-fruity flavours. Brand new barrels were a luxury few could afford, and the aromas/flavours derived from them were reserved for a tiny elite. Europe’s relatively moderate climate overall (especially back then) also kept ripeness in check; alcohol remained at sobering levels and acids could occasionally strip the paint off the farmhouse table. Even in southern Europe’s hot pockets, acids were high and alcohol still relatively modest, since, without any way to artificially stabilize wines, local grapes had been naturally selected over centuries to hold their acids in warm climates, without which wines would have spoiled before the next harvest rolled around (high acids retard spoilage) – a very bad thing.
And so was born the “Old World” style description, variously called “traditional” or “old school”, applied to wines from Europe made more or less according to the recipe above (pardon the exaggeration). As Court of Master Sommelier examination committee member Matt Citriglia MS describes, “In general, think of old world wine styles as a wine that has been produced for centuries without technology. The result is a wine dominated by earth or mineral-like character that has more restrained, tart fruit.”
Toronto-based Jennifer Huether MS, who has mentored most of this country’s MS candidates at some point, agrees: “Generally speaking Old World wines tend to display more mineral and earth notes (think chalk, dust, forest floor notes) than new world wines. Also, mostly due to climate, old world wines tend to have greater acidity and less alcohol. There are of course always exceptions”.
Bruce Wallner MS, chief engineer at the Sommelier Factory that has turned out some of Ontario’s best-trained tasters, alludes to the greater ageability of, or need to age, old school style wines: “Old World wines have a firmness (that give a little bite back). They often surprise on initial taste, being more austere than expected, but evolve slowly into a fascinating drink”.
New World (or modern, or new school) wines, as David will reveal next week, are contrastingly made with riper fruit and advanced technology, often in a totally reductive style (in the absence of oxygen) and generous new wood, resulting in a polar opposite style.
Now, needless to say, in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the geographic-stylistic differences don’t line up as neatly as they did just 20 or 30 years ago. Winemakers from all corners of the planet travel widely, study in the same schools, and frequently consult on winemaking projects or do internships in their opposite world. The world of wine is a village. Ever-more cool climates in the New World are being exploited, and Europe is warming up. The style distinction by geography holds as much water as a beaten-up old vat.
As a Doug Frost MS MW, one of the sharpest palates I’ve ever clinked glasses with, declares: “It’s painting with an absurdly broad brush to declare distinct differences between New World and Old World wines”.
But wait! It’s not time to throw out the “Worlds” just yet. As Frost continues, “Still there are typicities that prevail throughout the categories”. All we need do is forget the geographic reality of Old World and New World, and consider only the style distinction associated with each (or use the synonyms traditional or old school), and voilà, confusion clarified. There are absolutely certain characteristics that prevail in the Old World Style and New World Style wine categories, as outlined above, and these will be amplified next week. Of course, top old school wine makers are as technically proficient as any new school counterpart these days, and I’m not suggesting that these types of wines are in any way deficient. On the contrary. But in general, even if the old school is far less wild (and questionable) than its archetypal genesis, it remains a savoury, earth-forward, oxygen-informed style. Just remember that the categories are no longer tied to a wine’s country of origin. There are plenty of Old World style/traditional/old school wines produced in the New World, and vice-versa.
So why hang on to the arcane terminology? Because, in a couple of succinct words, you can convey the very essence of a wine. Most wines can be summed up by their philosophy of production, which ultimately leads to either a more fruity or more savoury profile. And knowing that, after all, is at a higher order of importance to drinkers than knowing a wine’s postal code.
But you wouldn’t expect everyone to agree on the world style categories all of the time. The dividing equator has a wide margin of grey, and once in a while you get the best of both worlds. The WineAlign cru purposely didn’t consult one another on which wines to include in this week’s Old School line up, and which to include next week. As proof, both David and Sara recommend a Cornas this week that I was saving for next week, arguing quite rightly that it’s a savoury and earthy syrah. I argue that it’s a more modern version of a very traditional and distinctive appellation (riper, more new wood evident, etc..). Ahh, but that’s another story.
We invite you to go to school with us on the wines below, and share whether you think we’re actually at the same school. We’d also welcome your own definition of old school wine; there’s room for many interpretations (save your new school definition for next week). Or perhaps you just want to tell us that classifying by school or world is a futile and useless exercise, and let’s just get on with the drinking. With my kids back at school, I might even have the time.
Buyers Guide For September 19th: Old School Whites
Antech 2012 Réserve Brut Blanquette de Limoux, France ($16.95)
John Szabo – A regionally distinctive Blanquette from one of the more reliable names in Limoux, dry, crisp and notably (and pleasantly) oxidative-appley.
Thirty Bench 2013 Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($18.95)
John Szabo – Classically styled in the Rheingau framework, crisp, fresh and pure, vibrant and tangy off-dry riesling (10.6% alc.) with very good to excellent length.
Auntsfield 2014 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Southern Valleys, Marlborough, New Zealand ($20.95)
John Szabo – In an era where Loire Sauvignon seems to be trying to emulate New Zealand, it’s nice to find a Kiwi sauvignon that has more Sancerre-like restraint. This still has a good dose of classically pungent Marlborough character, though it’s anchored on a more savoury flavour base, with superior length, and yes, a mouthful of minerals in the old world idiom.
Alain Geoffroy 2013 Chablis Premier Cru Beauroy, Burgundy, France ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – The wines of Alain Geoffroy typically have a great respect for tradition and a sensitivity to the expression of particular vineyards sites. The wines of the 1er Cru climat of Beauroy have a tendency to show a nutty, slightly honeyed character which is certainly present in this example along with typically old world notes of lemon oil and a touch of lactic acid. The lees work here is quite apparent as well lending a slight yeasty breadiness to the palate which rounds out the sharp acids. Classic.
Atlantis 2014 Dry White, Cyclades, Santorini, Greece ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Santorini’s winemaking tradition goes back so far that the island boasts some of the oldest working vines in the world – some with rootstocks dating back to close 400 years. Atlantis is a blend of traditional varieties which include mostly assyrtiko along with aidani and athiri which give splendid aromatics. The racy acidity and a lovely saline finish are so typical of the vines planted on the volcanic soils of this sunny, windy island.
Stags’ Leap Winery 2013 Viognier, Napa Valley, California, USA ($34.95)
Sara d’Amato – Although not from an old world locale, this viognier immediately struck me as possessing old world sensibilities. Aside from the fact that this is a dynamite viognier, it is not all about fruit. With an equal focus on texture, an integrated oak treatment using older wood and using a touch of volatility to add liveliness, this is certainly a wine “standing on the shoulders of giants”. More northern Rhône than northern Californian.
Buyers Guide For September 19th: Old School Reds
Cantine Lonardo 2008 Taurasi, Campania, Italy ($44.95)
John Szabo – The very definition and essence of the old school, wonderfully mature, savoury, driven as much by mushroom, wet earth, forest floor and dried resinous herbs as it is by (dried) fruit, with extreme complexity. What a tour de force! What a mouthful of wine! This has it all going on, ready to drink or hold, best 2015-2028.
Aurelio Settimo 2010 Rocche Dell’annunziata Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($57.95)
John Szabo –Settimo is an unabashed traditionalist, and this 2010 is lovely and perfumed. Tannins are characteristically firm and tight, but the extensive range of flavours and fruit extract is more than enough to compensate. Best after 2017 or so.
J. Christopher 2011 Lumière Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley Oregon, USA ($44.95)
John Szabo – The volcanic pinots of the Willamette lean generally to the old school, and J. Christopher’s excellent rendition from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA is nicely perfumed and lifted, in a high-toned, floral-spicy expression. The palate offers significant depth and cut on a light, lavender-scented frame. Best 2016-2023
Quinta Dos Roques 2012 Vinho Tinto, Dão, Portugal ($18.95)
John Szabo – A terrific value red, full of vibrant, crunchy, red and black fruit, and especially floral-violet flavours, with suave tannins and very good length. Great refinement and drinkability, and judicious use of wood (minimal).
Sara d’Amato – The region of Dão in central Portugal is arguably one of the most exciting and vibrant wine regions in the country. Populated by mainly small boutique wineries as opposed to big co-ops, the wines have an artisanal feel such as this invigorating find from Quinta dos Roques, brimming with cherries and exotic spice. Bright and food-friendly but lovely to drink on its own.
Keint-He 2013 Voyageur Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($19.00)
John Szabo – For $20 this is serious wine, one to buy if you’re a pinot noir lover tired of paying $30+ for decent, old world style, leafy, earthy, fine grained wines.
Wildass 2012 Red, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($19.95)
John Szabo – It was the intriguing Italianate character here that drew me to this wine (and why it ended up in this list) fully resinous, oxidative and volatile in the Italian style (and that of Stratus winemaker JL Groux). This could pass for sangiovese were it not for the deep colour. In any case the complexity is high and the structure is firm and robust, and length/complexity are excellent.
Trinity Hill 2013 Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($22.95)
John Szabo – Although marginally more fruity than arch-classic old school, northern Rhône syrah, this still has distinctive spicy-peppery, cool climate flavours, with quivering acids and fine-grained tannins, and no oak encumbrance. Trinity Hill is among the tops in Hawkes Bay.
Scacciadiavoli 2011 Montefalco Rosso, Umbria, Italy ($20.95)
John Szabo – A bold, authoritative and spicy Montefalco Rosso, savoury and salty, charmingly rustic, tailor-made for wintry stews, grilled meats or hard cheese.
13th Street 2013 Gamay Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This captured at Platinum medal at the 2015 National Wine Awards, as part of a three gamay surge. It is a quite powerful yet linear gamay from a producer that pioneered this grape in Niagara. So there is some old vine depth and complexity. There is also old world winemaking with some acetic and sour-edged volatility (for which I have a low threshold), but the other NWAC judges loved it. Very good depth and complexity here. PS. Chateau des Charmes 2012 Gamay Droit also on the release was another Platinum Award Winner, in a fruitier, richer style that I prefer.
Norman Hardie 2013 County Unfiltered Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County ($39.00)
David Lawrason – Norman Hardie learned pinot winemaking Burgundy, and has applied those principles along his career path, ending up in terroir driven Prince Edward County. Much of his success is due to attention to his site and grape-growing but he is also a maestro of laissez-faire, edgy, old school winemaking. Fairly toasty oak is the only real nod to modernity. The result is a fascinating pinot that seems so simple at first yet is so captivating when all is said and done.
Jaeger-Defaix 2013 Rully Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France ($27.95)
David Lawrason – Here is a great opportunity to compare Burgundy to Prince Edward County, to understand the themes of cool climate and terroir and traditional winemaking. Its pale colour belies great complexity, grip and depth – it’s a rustic pinot with all kinds of personality. Riveting stuff.
Château Fleur La Mothe 2009, Médoc, Bordeaux, France ($24.95)
David Lawrason – One of the tenets of old school winemaking was that the wine was meant to age – to gain complexity and balance through long rest in barrel then bottle. Here is very generous, ripe and maturing old school Bordeaux that delivers to that expectation. It’s quite fleshy, silky and dense with the ripeness of a hot vintage.
Domaine Eric & Joel Durand 2012 Empreintes Cornas, Rhone Valley, France ($46.95)
David Lawrason – This is a deep, dark classic 100% syrah from the steep granitic slopes of Cornas. Northern Rhone syrahs traditionally showed considerable meatiness and grit, elements that many modern shiraz producers are not very keen on. Great, classic aromatics here with excellent to outstanding length.
Sara d’Amato – Meaty, earthy and peppery with just a hint of brett and volatility, this attractive find is quite typical of the northern Rhône in the most traditional sense. A captivating find in which to lose yourself in masses of complex flavours.
Giacomo Mori Castelrotto 2010 Chianti Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($27.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very traditional, ripe Chianti with complex, compact aromas of dried fig/currant, leather, roasted chestnut and sandalwood. It’s medium-full bodied, hefty for Chianti and quite smooth yet sour-edged, on the cusp of volatility. Old school for sure.
Palazzo 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany ($64.95)
David Lawrason – Regulations requiring long ageing in barrel are responsible for ensuring that the traditional feel of Brunello is part of its DNA. Thank goodness for that. This is a lovely, refined example with well-woven, complex aromas. It’s medium full bodied, fairly supple and firm, with some tannin still very much in play. Compact and quite dry.
Valdemar 2010 Inspiración Selección, Rioja, Spain ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Rioja is another region where a tradition of long ageing in American oak has created a distinct profile that is more about wood, leather and often meaty flavours than it is about fruit. If you are going to judge for fruit first you are missing the point of these wines. This is a great demonstration, offering good density, tension, structure and depth for $20.
Castello Monsanto 2011 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($34.95)
Sara d’Amato – A sangiovese (90%) based blend with a small amounts of canaiolo and colorino. Founder Aldo Bianchi was what you might call a progressive traditionalist and was responsible for the first “cru” in Chianti Classico from the Il Poggio vineyard. Sangiovese has always been the primary focus of the winery and son Fabrizio, with his daughter Laura, take the varietal to outstanding heights exemplified in this age-worthy and distinctive wine.
Messias Colheita Port 2005, Douro, Portugal ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – An aged Tawny Port, a Colheita is made using grapes from only a single vintage and must be aged in barrel for a minimum of seven years. This is a tremendous value not to be missed with rich, nutty notes of dates and dried cherry that linger with impressive persistence.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES Sept 19, 2015
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
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