- “I NAME THIS PLACE TERRA INCOGNITA.”
By Matt Kramer in Winespectator magazine
Is this a false dichotomy? Do we need a paradigm shift in characterizing wine? Matt Kramer thinks so
One of the most influential books of the past 50 years was Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn submitted that “progress” in science was achieved not by a step-by-step accretive process but rather by radical new ways of looking at things, what he called “paradigms.” It was Kuhn’s book that popularized the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift.”
I thought of Kuhn, of all people, in the middle of a blind tasting when someone asked the group, “Do you think this wine is Old World or New World?” When I heard that, I couldn’t help but think of how outdated this perspective has become. It’s an inappropriate, even lazy, way to taste and talk about wine today.
Are you still defining wines along the Old World/New World paradigm? At one time, maybe 25 years ago, it was a plausible lens that offered focus or insight. But now it’s more than merely a dead end. It’s a fallacy. Conventionally, Old World is thought to reflect a sensibility of delicate, refined fruit expression often reflecting a site specificity while New World is seen as driven by powerful, vibrant fruitiness and a preference for multi-site blending.
The fact is—and it is a fact—that it’s increasingly hard to delineate wines today using the Old World/New World platform. Does the “Old World” paradigm really tell us anything about, say, Spanish reds? Or wines from southwest France? Or many Bordeaux, for that matter? How about Syrah and Merlot from just about anywhere in Italy? Or the so-called super Tuscans? These wines, and many others, cannot be identified in a tasting by thinking of Old World vs. New World. Differentiating wines this way is also, consciously or not, political. Europeans who feel threatened by competition like to invoke the Old World designation as a protectionist means of stigmatizing anything not their own. Ironically, the very same effort is used by boosters of so-called New World wines, particularly in places like Australia and New Zealand.
I can hear you saying: “But surely there’s a difference between the really great Old World wines and upstarts from the New World?” Well, actually not.How many more blind tastings do we need before we accept that even the best, most astute, most informed tasters can no longer distinguish between, say, the best Syrahs from California and the Rhône? How many more showdowns between Napa Valley Cabernets and red Bordeaux are required before everyone acknowledges that not only are the best wines from each place not only qualitatively equal but often stylistically indistinguishable?
So if Old World/New World is a dusty, dead-end paradigm, what should we use instead? One possibility is to talk of “site-deferential” wines. Call it terroir if you must, but it’s really more than that. It’s a kind of humility, a reverence for the sanctity of place over the glory of self-expression.”Site-deference” is a mentality rather than a locality. This is the key point. We know, of course, that great vineyard sites are hardly confined only to Europe. So the informing difference today is not so much where they’re from but rather, how they’re from.This is why, by the way, philosophical paradigms such as biodynamic agriculture are gaining ground. The jury is still out on whether this extreme form of organic cultivation and winemaking makes a scientifically verifiable difference. But the mentality does make a difference—at least to the winegrowers. It enables them to see “wine life” through a different lens. And that, in turn, affects their wines.Recently, I tasted what struck me as one of the most site-magnified American Pinot Noirs I’ve yet experienced. The not-yet-released Rhys Vineyards “Swan Terrace” Pinot Noir 2006 is almost monastically about sanctity of place. You can barely find the winemaking in the wine. The fact that the grapes came from a high-elevation vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a mere detail. (That they’re also grown along biodynamic lines is another detail.)
Had you tasted this Pinot Noir and insisted on using the Old World/New World paradigm, you would have been forced to declare it Old World. And how wrong you would have been—about a lot more than just merely where the wine came from. To see wine through the Old World/New World paradigm is to blind yourself to today’s borderless wine reality. Kuhn himself put it best: “You do not perceive something until you have the right metaphor to receive it.”