Why Europe is still the best place for wine-touring
New and Old World wines have been slugging it out with increasing ferocity ever since the popping of corks from Australian, South African and South American wines became audible in Europe a few decades ago.
But while super-serious "Sideways"–style debates about bouquet and “mouthfeel” are all very well, Europe still wins when it comes to variety and what, at risk of pretension, we should call “terroir."
Visit the vineyards of Europe, from Bulgaria to Bordeaux, via Bologna and Bilbao, and you’ll taste amazingly different wines in more rustic settings and situated far closer together than in the typically vast plantations of the southern hemisphere.
“The biggest difference I see is in how commercialized wine touring is in the New World regions,” says Denise Medrano, aka The Wine Sleuth blogger.
“That's not to say Old World Wine wineries don't want to sell you their wine, but they are likely to do so from the cellar door -- literally.
“There isn’t the same flash and glitz as in the New World. There may be a few wine shops scattered around the main street, but you won't find a ‘wine train’ or a ‘wine experience’ on offer.”
An often more venerable winemaking history also enriches the experience of visiting vineyards in France, Spain, Italy and other tannin-scented parts of Europe.
“The traditions and family history that go into the wine are all part of what enhances the drinking experience,” Medrano says.
An earthy quality -- literally
What much of the Old World appeal comes down to is an elusive quality known as “terroir.”
In "Mondovino," his Palme d’Or-nominated film from 2004, director Jonathan Nossiter explored this wine quality that combines soil, climate, grape variety and husbandry.
Loosely, Nossiter concluded that Old World vineyards had terroir -- which literally means "earth" -- in spades, while the increasingly corporate New World wine fields lacked it, but were damn good at marketing.
Billecart-Salmon (40 Rue Carnot; +33 0 3 2652 6022), the Champagne region’s oldest family-owned wine house, exemplifies this elusive notion.
Dating from 1818, the property shimmers with French style, but in a far more understated way than at the luxury colossus Moet & Chandon, just up the road.
From the elegant main house, billeted by Nazi officers during World War II, to the ripe-smelling cellars, basically untouched since 1840, the history of the place is almost as compelling as its produce.
Sadly, you can’t drink history.
To try the house’s bubbly, you find its tasting room down an unassuming side street in the pretty Champagne town of Mareuil-Sur-Ay, next door to another pop star and plutocrat favorite, Bollinger.
The oak-aged Brut Sous Boi 2011 is delicious -- at around $100 a bottle, dangerously so.
Wine-making in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 400 miles south of Champagne in hilly Provence, goes back more than 700 years.
Grenache-guzzling popes helped start the tradition of producing some of the world’s finest reds here when the papacy moved briefly to Avignon.
The best stuff comes from producers such as Ogier (link in French; 10 Avenue Louis Pasteur; +33 0 4 90 39 32 32), which has been around for the best part of 200 years.
If you’re not an OCD wine enthusiast like "I am NOT drinking any f------ merlot" Miles from "Sideways," the guys here will explain how the region’s soils and the barrels used for ageing influence the wine’s taste.
In a tutored tasting, you’ll learn to detect flavor notes such as blackberry and licorice and to tell whether the wine is aged or young.
You might even be persuaded to spit the wine out out once you’ve sniffed it and swirled it around your mouth.
A half-hour drive to the east, through Provence, you enter a region awash with small vineyards plying their wares from tasting rooms that might be tacked on to a barn or a fading chateau.
There’s a real sense of discovery here that only such idiosyncratic little places, often passed down through the generations, can offer.
Domaine des Favards (link in French; 1335 and 1353, Route d'Orange, Violès; +33 0 4 90 70 94 64) is a good example, with an acerbic but lively rosé. They even make wine jam, if you like something from the vine with every meal.
History by the glass
France might come first to mind for many people when thinking of European wine, but no serious grape juice fan should stop at its borders.
In Italy, references to the renowned Chianti-producing vineyards around spectacular Castello di Gabbiano (Via di Gabbiano; +39 0 55 821 053; daily tasting tours available) go back to the 11th century.
Australian or South African vineyards just don’t have that history.
Not that European winemakers necessarily shy away from the new. With its exterior of huge colorful metal sheets, like a pile of crumpled wrapping paper, the Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal (Calle Torrea 1; +34 945 180 880), in the Spanish Rioja region, couldn’t be more modern.
Yet its cellars were built in 1858 -- and as you sip on a glass of the Gehry Selection 2001 it feels as if old and new are getting along pretty well in the property and the glass.
Still, if you fancy a taste of the new world in Europe, you can find it at Camel Valley (+44 0 1208 77959) in the UK's Cornish village of Nanstallon. Here, wines such as the 2011 Cornwall Pinot Noir Rose Brut rank with the best of the new European sparkling wines among critics.
A thrusting young vineyard such as this represents, so to speak, the best of both worlds.