Sales of the very top New World wines might still lag behind those of their big-name European counterparts, but, as Andrew Catchpole discovers, there are signs that the balance could finally be starting to shift
Quality-wise, the New World has never looked more attractive. It’s been riding a wave of ongoing reinvention and evolution that has seen the bad old days of blockbuster wines tempered by a focus on fresher, more finely balanced and food-friendly styles. The buzz is about poised, site-specific, terroir-driven wines from cooler climates, delivering complexity while also retaining the best elements of New World accessibility in the glass.
Add to this mix the undeniable popularity of everyday-drinking New World wines with the punters and, logically, this new-ish wave of goodies should be a shoo-in for the smartest wine lists.
Certainly, it’s not difficult to find sommeliers and restaurateurs who are fans of the New World’s new wave, whether they’re in love with balanced Chardonnays, elegant but fruit-lined Pinot Noirs or savoury-leaning Syrahs.
A re-booted California, revitalised Australia and quality-driven New Zealand are all in on the act. South Africa, too, has finally made the grade with funky, often off-piste blends from Swartland now opening new doors alongside the Bordeaux-style blends from Stellenbosch. Meanwhile Argentina and Chile continue to gain credence for greater complexity.
All this shows that the New World can deliver new classics to the list. Nicolas Clerc MS also points out that Parker points ‘have helped massively to establish recognition for the quality possible in consumers’ minds.’
Add into the mix a younger generation of wine drinkers who don’t automatically assume that Old World is better, and top-end Australia et al begin to look seriously under-represented on lists.
NEW V OLD
The question, then, is what may be holding the best of the New World back? Is it the old cliché of customers reverting to the tried and tested at higher spends? Or perhaps Euro-centric sommelier resistance? A lingering question over comparative quality and value, or food compatibility? Or simply the inevitable lag between discovery and the redrafting of lists?
‘This imbalance does still exist,’ says Philippe Nublat, food and beverage director at The Kitchin in Edinburgh. ‘It’s partly a question of customers feeling comfortable spending money higher up the list. At our two-Michelin star restaurant, sales of top-end Burgundy and Bordeaux outstrip Henschke or Penfolds by 100 to one.’
Nublat has no quarrel with the quality or food compatibility offered by New World wines. Moreover, he suggests that their relative value against Old World rivals often increases still further as you move towards the top of the price ladder.
Yet, significantly, he reveals that at both The Kitchin and its gastropub sibling, The Scran and Scallie, customers embrace New World wines alongside their European counterparts in the £40-90 range. It is only above £100 that it becomes difficult. He argues that what the New World can and should do at its best is to provide points of difference to – rather than ape the styles of – the traditional European stalwarts. This, he believes, will allow sommeliers to bring enjoyable and demonstrable points of difference to the mix on their lists.
‘People need to stop comparing Pinot with Burgundy, Syrah with the northern Rhône, and Cabernet with Bordeaux’ Kathrine Larsen MS
He cites wines including Stella Bella Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River, Cheval des Andes from Argentina and cooler climate Syrah and Cabernet Franc from New Zealand as good examples.
The formality of the dining occasion, along with the way in which a list is structured, also plays a part in customer engagement with the New World. Anecdotally the trend for less formal eateries favours the New World, but, frustratingly, it also appears to set a kind of vinous glass ceiling on upper spend.
George Bergier at the Victorian Chop House Company in Manchester and Leeds reports a similar growth of interest with a more casual crowd. ‘We are traditional chop houses with traditionally biased wine lists, and the business people at lunchtime drink Bordeaux, Burgundy and port, with these accounting for 80% of sales,’ says Bergier. ‘But in the evening, when we have a much more relaxed and younger crowd in, the tendency is to go for New World, with more reasonably priced wines from Chile, South Africa and Argentina selling well.’
However, Alessandro Marchesan of Oblix, Zuma and Roka, refutes the idea that the New World performs best with younger customers in less formal settings. He claims sommeliers can overcomplicate wine and not offer the best New World gear to their punters. ‘Put the wines on the list,’ he says, ‘and if they are good enough they will sell – even at the highest price.’
‘There are people who prefer Old World and people who prefer New World, at all levels of spend. California and Australia are where most look for fine wine from the New
World,’ says Marchesan.
‘We sell wines such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate for up to £3,000 and have a whole section devoted to Sine Qua Non. Yet we have no problem selling wines from producers such as Ridge, Penfolds and Henschke closer to the £300 mark. People like the extra fruit in these wines and consider them very good value.’
Marchesan is adamant that wine knowledge is the deciding factor – and Michael Patterson, group category manager at D&D London, agrees. ‘It’s not about a generation gap. People who understand more about wine have a better grasp of what they can get from the New World at the higher end,’ he says.
‘Those with less knowledge are more likely to feel comfortable with the old, familiar names,’ he continues. ‘But quality is scattered across both Old and New World, so people who understand this also know why wine is expensive to produce in a place like California.’
Across D&D’s diverse London restaurants, the sommelier ethos is to first assess what the customer’s tastes are, then work to match up suitable wines with the food, rather than dictating a classic and well-worn pairing. This appears to level the playing field somewhat for the New World.
Compare the roll call of New World ‘icon’ estates that sell readily to city-slicker big-spenders at Oblix with Nublat’s example of more accessibly priced ‘point-of-difference’ labels for an Edinburgh clientele, and it could be argued that the New World needs to collectively grow
the recognition and breadth of its A-List of wines. Without doing so it may be difficult for restaurants to join the dots between mid-market acceptance and the highest priced wines.
THE NAME GAME
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay head sommelier Jan Konetzki confirms that the wines that usually draw people into spending up on the New World are established quality ‘brands’, such as Chile’s Seña, California’s Opus One, Insignia from Joseph Phelps or Sine Qua Non.
‘If people are interested in the New World and have the money to spend, then these are wines that have the brand image to reassure and encourage them to try,’ says Konetzki. ‘Then, if you are lucky, the people who come for an experience will be more inclined to drink something they might not usually drink. And this is where they begin to discover that the stylistic choice from the southern hemisphere is often broader, because there is less generic uniformity than in the classic regions,’ he concludes.
Konetzki believes there is still a point in explaining New World wines with reference to the established framework of Old World styles, but also argues that as more punters recognise the new A-List wines, so more and more New World styles will be sought after purely on their individual merit.
Put more simply, wines such as Sorrenberg Chardonnay from Beechworth in Australia or Eben Sadie’s Columella from South Africa’s Swartland may still need a push to someone looking for a Chassagne-Montrachet or Côte-Rôtie. However, as Konetzki suggests, ‘even the most entrenched customers can
have an “oh my god!” moment if they are persuaded to try such wines.’
The common theme is that there still needs to be a greater shift in thinking – by producers, trade and customers alike – away from considering the New World as an ‘alternative’, to a position where individual identity and character is what the wine is sold on.
‘The stylistic choice from the southern hemisphere is often broader, because there is less generic uniformity than in the classic regions’ Jan Konetzki
Of course, it’s not the job of restaurants to push New World wines. But, arguably, it is the job of sommeliers to list the best bottles possible – wherever they come from – and to encompass as many taste preferences as possible in doing so.
‘It’s all about having an open mind,’ according to Kathrine Larsen MS. ‘Attitudes are changing,’ she says. ‘Even at £200, £300 or £400 a bottle, if you can guarantee a wine will be great, guests will spend on well-made Australian and New Zealand wines, along with some South American and South African ones, while California has moved beyond the point where it’s considered “New World”.
‘People need to stop comparing Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with Burgundy, Syrahs with the northern Rhône, Cabernet blends with Bordeaux, and understand that these wines can be outstanding in their own right,’ she goes on. ‘We need to reach the point where the best of the New World is considered so classic that the term New World isn’t used any more, just an understanding of the style and the region; the wines should sell on merit alone.’
Illustration: Alex Tomlinson