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Back to France (and of course Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany…)

Back in 1993, when I first became interested in wine in a serious way, I didn't begin by drinking the French classics—instead, I gained my education primarily from the Australian and New Zealand wines that were then beginning to be extremely popular in the UK. My first great wine experiences were not, therefore, mature classed growth-clarets or premier cru Burgundies; instead, I was wooed by Coonawarra Cabernet, Hunter Valley Shiraz and of course the Penfolds' blends such as Bins 28, 128 and 389. These wines had great appeal to me as a wine newbie: they were rich, ripe, dressed up in seductive new oak and were very affordable. Above all, they displayed a depth of flavour that was almost entirely absent in similarly priced wines from the classic French regions. And unlike decent Bordeaux, I didn't have to wait ten years to be able to enjoy them.

I am sure that I am not alone in this respect: many of my wine geek chums in their late 20s and early 30s have taken a similar route, bypassing the classic regions and heading straight for the 'new world' for the bulk of their early wine education. But now, a few years later, I have noticed a new phenomenon among my peers. Whereas before in our wine shopping we may have headed straight for the Australian, New Zealand or Chilean shelves, now we are lingering over the Rhônes and Burgundies, checking the Bordeaux future prices, dipping into the Loire selections and eagerly looking for the new wave of wines from the Languedoc—we are going back to the classic European wine regions, and most particularly, France.

There are several potential explanations for this.

  • A sense of place
    Now I'm a big fan of Australian wines, and I'll continue to drink them with pleasure, but even their keenest advocates will concede that there are certain problems with the new world way of doing things. One is that most producers try to do a bit of everything, producing several different wine styles from just one property. And even the best patch of land isn't going to be ideally suited to all of Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and Semillon. It will take time for new world producers to discover exactly where each variety grows best, and then commercial courage to concentrate on growing only the varieties suited to their vineyard holdings. Allied to this, the new world focus on a restricted set of grape varieties leads to proliferation of just a few styles, which can get a bit boring. This lack of diversity is emphasized by too much reliance on cellar technology, leading to a heavy winemaking imprint that obscures the sense of place that is an intrinsic aspect of many of the great wines of the old world.
  • Bigger isn't always better
    Concentration isn't everything in a wine, although I'd generally rather have a concentrated wine than a dilute one. But now I'm less likely to be wooed by 'bigness' in a wine: instead, I look for factors such as balance and complexity rather than just raw power. These subtleties, amply displayed in many of the better wines from classic wine regions, are easily missed by wine newbies. Old world wines don't display their attributes brazenly for all to see; you have to search them out. They don't shout, they whisper; you have to listen carefully.
  • More money to spend on wine
    My wine budget now is bigger than when I first got into wine, for a number of reasons -- not least because I'm so hooked by the wine bug that I spend more of my disposable income on it than I used to. One consequence has been that my per-bottle spend has risen, bringing interesting old world wines within range. After all, with a few notable exceptions, it is still the case that the new world performs better than the old at the bottom end of the price spectrum.

Does that mean I'll no longer buy new world wines?
Not at all! I haven't analysed my buying patterns, but I'd say that taking mood swings and seasonal shifts into account, my purchases are probably split 50/50 between the old and new world regions. Why? One of the enduring fascinations of wine is its diversity. Whatever people say, new world wines are not all crude imitations of the old world styles. Regions such as the McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley. Mudgee and the Hunter all have their own distinctive styles, and where these are allowed their expression through careful winemaking, they can be equally as compelling and valid as any of the great classics of France, Italy and Spain. I see this 'back to France' movement not as a desertion of the new world, but more as a correction of a bias or deficit. In fact, I could be argued that someone versed in the old world classics but ignorant of the best of the new world has as much still to learn as someone who was in my position of knowing new world wine but lacking in-depth knowledge of the old. Long live diversity!