Adversity builds character. At least that’s what my parents told me every time we uprooted from our home to move states, schools, and houses. They softened the blow by telling us over pizza, but it was still a big adjustment—even with the extra heese. And, while “home” will always be a nebulous distinction for me, I do believe that moving as often as we did made me stronger and more adaptable. Old World winemakers (namely, Europeans) adopt this idea of tough love when tending to their vines. They believe that stressing a vine is the only way to build its character.
WAYS TO BATTLE THE WORLDS
Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut NV, Languedoc-Roussillon, France. Greenwood Country Store ($19.99)
Li Veli Orion Primitivo 2007, Puglia, Italy. Special order for your favorite local wine retailer ($16)
They plant vines shoulder to shoulder, encouraging each one to dig deep with their roots to compete for the soil’s water and nutrients, thus expressing its “terroir” in every grape. So often written in quotations, partly because the word is loaned from the French and partly because it expresses a notion more than a word, “terroir” refers to the confluence of humanly uncontrollable factors (climate, soil and topography) along with humanly controllable factors (viticulture, winemaking and tradition). I’ve heard it described before as “location, location, location,” but I think that is too simplistic, albeit catchy.
I like to think of a wine’s terroir as its upbringing. Europe will always hold an unmistakable romance and charm to Americans. They have Catherine Deneuve, we have Kathy Griffin. They wear Ferragamo, we wear Juicy Couture. They eat Pont l’Évêque, we eat Velveeta. Sure, there are exceptions of winemakers in the New World making Old World-style wines, but in general we are not known for our subtlety. We create (and prefer) big, buxom, eager-to-please wines and believe that our nation’s average palate will reject a wine exhibiting leather saddle, forest loam or barnyard. We don’t want to have to work for our wine’s affection—we just want it to jump in our lap and lick us in the face. We list varietals on our labels, come up with silly names and gimmicks (Jackass Red? Rude Girl Shiraz? Cleavage Creek?), and produce hyper-extracted wines with enough alcohol to obliterate our senses in one fell sip. (Extraction is the process of taking the flavor, color and tannin out of grape skins during fermentation.)
We let magazines and a lone man by the name of Robert Parker who has a palate that is singular in focus dictate what wines we drink (and produce). Are we just not digging deep enough into our own country’s character, or does Europe just have hundreds of years of winemaking knowledge and tradition on us?
Moving as often as we did, I also learned to take my parents’ advice on how to make friends. So, when I told my dad what I was writing about this week, he warned me not to come across as a snob, as he knows my unyielding preference for Old World wines. I told him, as I continued to sip on a glass of Pinot Gris (from Oregon, mind you) that while I see a time and a place for New World wines, that the distinctiveness of a wine encouraged to express nature’s hand over the winemaker’s hand is incomparable and addictive. It incites you. It transports you. It inspires you. Just as a person’s upbringing makes him who he is, a wine’s upbringing makes it what it is—a conspiring of the universe, bottled for your enjoyment with one part intellect and one part hedonism.