Four Wines - Four Worlds

Norwich Bulletin - 1998


I’m looking at four empty bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. The empties are the result of guests and friends and the selection is quite by chance.

Interesting observations can be made. Whereas one bottle displays the old order, another shows a young lion of the new age. Yet another bottle represents one of the path-finders of a new world and another presents an old tradition in a new and funky outfit.

The first, representing the old order, is a bottle of 1986 Chateau Giscours. A venerable wine from France, it still has traces of dust from the cellar where it has patiently lain for nearly 10 years. The label has that old parchment look, with an elegant black and red scripted type-face and a gold crest.  It is a wine from the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, and it has the undeniable class and structure of a wine from the Margaux commune -- soft, feminine and gently aromatic with delicate tannins. It is made primarily with the ‘noble’ grape varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a dash of Cabernet Franc.

The second wine represents the young lions, or in this particular case a rabbit. The 1995 “Rabbit Ridge” Old Vines zinfandel from the Russian River Valley in California is a typical Californian blockbuster. The label is elegantly contemporary in lapis blue and gold. Zinfandel is a peculiarly American grape. Some people think this grape variety came originally from Hungary or the Balkans. Others think it may have come from Italy. Its roots may be blurred, but it has found a splendid home in California where it is often made into the innocuous blush white zinfandel. But when this grape is made into a red it becomes something else. It can be a young, light quaffer, or a rich heavyweight, but both have a typical spicy and fruity nature. It’s vibrancy and flavor is redolent of the ‘new age’ wines being produced in America.

Representing the pathfinders of American wine lore, the third wine is Ridge Vineyards 1983 “York Creek” cabernet sauvignon. The wine is past its best but although old and fading it is well structured and has a beautiful soft finish. Paul Draper, the wine maker of Ridge is one of the trailblazers for the American cause, and helped put top quality Californian wine on the world wine map.

The label is austere. Dull green and black lettering on a cream background describe the wine and its journey from vineyard to the bottle. Even the percentages of grape types used for the blend is spelled out; 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot, as well as the dates of harvesting and bottling. Unlike the Bordeaux wine label that gives no details at all, the label reflects an honest, unromantic attempt to produce a world class wine.

Last we come to the new “Old World.” The last bottle is a simple lusty country Italian wine. Fossi Rosso is a contemporary wine blended from new and old Chianti vintages. As critic Tom Stockley says, “Ya gotta love a bottle of wine with a label of a smiling peasant woman picking grapes that is right out of 1947.” The bright image and bold typeface reminded me more of a Socialist poster from Mexico or Italy from the 1930’s. It is a wine designed for drinking with spaghetti.

Italy produces much of the world’s wines, but as a result of archaic wine production techniques, and inept legislation, much wine was inferior and badly made. The world market and expectations concerning the quality and price of wine have changed things. Other areas of the world using modern techniques are producing cheaper, superior wine. Europe, in general, is having to pull its socks up to keep pace and is using more aggressive marketing techniques. Fossi Rosso is such a product, and at $5.99 a bottle it is a good little spaghetti red!