Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Old World to New World, and Back?

It could be argued that Syrah and Malbec have done better for themselves in the New World than they ever did in the Old World.

Syrah at its most famous - for wine geeks, that is - is grown in France's northernn Rhone, most notably in Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. But it wasn't until the past 20 years or so that Syrah was grown in quantity in the southern Rhone (and Languedoc-Roussillon), where the bulk of the Rhone Valley's wine is produced and exported. When cuttings were shipped off to Australia in the mid-19th century, the name changed to Shiraz, and the grape, whatever you want to call it, flourished. Far more Shiraz is grown in Australia than has ever been grown in France. Shiraz replaced Merlot as the most requested red wine grape in the USA (how long has it been, 10 years?), but fads only last so long here, and Australia ran into trouble by subsidizing exports of cheap wine - not the best strategy for a place so far away.

Malbec started off in Bordeaux but was pretty much pushed out by the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc) and Merlot. It moved southwest, to Cahors, where it is still grown with some success, but Merlot followed it there, and most recent efforts include some Merlot in the blend. Where Malbec has taken off, however, is in the New World, specifically Argentina. In Baltimore, and I suspect most of the USA, Malbec is now the most requested red wine in retail shops.

The Argentine version of the Malbec is, like the Aussie version of Syrah, plush and fat, often jammy. The French, like the rest of the Old World winegrowers, were late to the varietal marketing game, and most of their efforts have been, well, less than successful. France isn't so good at plush and fat - thank goodness, and no offense to the New World because the fun is in the differences and it would be so boring if wine tasted the same no matter where it came from! - no, France is good at dry, balanced and, well, earthy. So, how can France get back into the action? I've tasted a couple of wines in the past year or so that might contain the answer.

The first was a Malbec from Cahors, made by Georges Vigouroux, called Gouleyant. It's got all of that nomenclature on the front label - Malbec prominently enough, though not in a smaller font than Cahors. More important, it's big and rich for Cahors, which seems to appeal to my New World wine customers, while still balanced and earthy and somehow French, which works for my Old World wine customers. It is the number one selling Malbec in the store. The second is a Syrah from the Languedoc, made by Domaine Croix Belle. I resisted purchasing this last year only because interest in Shiraz had declined so precipitously it didn't seem worth the effort to sell a French version. Tasting the '09 yesterday, however, the wine is too good, regardless of grape variety, to ignore. It also succeeds in much the same way the Vigouroux Malbec does - big and rich for France, but still structured and balanced enough to be recognizable as French.

Could this be part of the solution to France's declining wine export woes? For small wine merchants like me, yes (though we still sell plenty of traditional French appellations). For the market at large? Global warming seems to be making it possible for France to make good New World style wine, and they've got lots of vineyards. Stay tuned.


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