It would be hard to disagree with Grant Dodd, Australian MD of Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch, in his comment to my last blog, about pinot noir: Everyone, he says, is still vying for second place to Burgundy. New Zealand, is perhaps winning that second-place race so far, it seems to me, in terms of breadth and depth of quality examples. But the observation started me off on some rambling associated thoughts – some of which I offer here, without trying to be comprehensive, or deep.
There are great grape varieties other than pinot where the original remains unsurpassed – nebbiolo, for example, has Piedmont as its unquestioned leader, with nowhere else even close; riesling has Germany still supreme (with, arguably, Austria and Australia vying for second place). But international efforts with varieties like these has been small to minuscule compared with the love, tears and sweat expended worldwide on trying to make great pinot noir. And there are, of course, other fine varieties which have such comparatively few and isolated followers that there’s no real race involved – probably nebbiolo is the most illustrious example of this, but there are many others from Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Then there are the varieties where excellent examples from foreign parts are sufficiently numerous to challenge the great original. Cabernet sauvignon (and blends based heavily on it) most obviously, as it is such an important part of the international fine-wine focus. To such an extent, even, that the influence of Napa cabernet on Bordeaux itself has not been insubstantial. Italy and various new world countries make a number of wines that could sit happily in any line-up of fine bordeaux – even if these other areas can’t offer the depth of the Bordeaux experience.
Chardonnay’s more or less in this category too, I’d venture, though Burgundy still commands a premium and has utterly devoted followers who’d deny (unshaken by the humbling experience of the premox crisis) that New Zealand, the USA, South Africa and Australia could each offer at least a few handfuls of comparable wines. Syrah – well, if the Northern Rhône is ahead, it’s only just, and I’m not even sure of that, except maybe in terms of depth once more, though Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, etc are unquestionably the model for syrah in New Zealand, the USA and South Africa, and increasingly so for ambitious makers in Australia.
And grenache? Just this last week, Jancis Robinson remarked in her Financial Times column that “I would argue that many of those who make wine in its most famous stronghold, the southern Rhône, could learn a thing or two from those blazing a trail in Spain, Australia and South Africa for a new style of this red wine grape.”
Sauvignon blanc (only arguably a grape to throw into a discussion of great varieties) is an interesting case. With all the other varieties, the benchmark style remains that of the great homeland, but New Zealand has succeeded in vying with the Loire in terms of international impact, but with a completely different style of sauvignon. Personally, I think Cape sauvignon superior to the New Zealand one, and it’s a different model again, though the local sauvignon-semillon blends are again much in the line of Bordeaux versions, and pretty competitive to boot.
Even more so is Cape chenin blanc playing the game mostly on its own terms, thanks to its long tradition here and, crucially, the fact that it was planted in totally different sort of conditions. All the wrong conditions, in fact! I’ve pointed out before how unlikely it would be for anyone now to take chenin into the Cape and plant it in apparently utterly unsuitable terrain like the hot, dry Swartland and the Citrusdal mountains – but thank heavens that’s what was done.
It prompts me to idly wonder if, in the case of pinot, the problem is that Burgundy is such an overwhelming model that everyone is trying to match it rather than seeing what “unsuitable” conditions might produce in terms of something as new as Cape chenin compared to that of the Loire – where the “original” is made in a terroir-reflective style that the Swartland and Stellenbosch is inevitably unlikely to match. Sometimes it’s better to invent a new game rather than play the old one with the wrongly shaped ball or inappropriate rules.