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Chilean and cheerful
I t is a source of some irritation that the predictive text facility on my mobile phone accepts gr8 as a word (as, I have just learned, does my PC's spellchecker) and yet it rejects what I would call proper' words such as bode and vitriolic.
I imagine it is similarly irksome for wine producers in countries such as South Africa and Chile to fall into a category we (myself included) glibly refer to as new world'.
I am just back from a two-day seminar hosted by the Chilean winery, Errazuriz. The welcoming talk, given by Stuart Pigott, was entitled What is old and what is new?' It was a truly thought-provoking couple of hours.
Before this talk I hadn't appreciated that the terms new world' and old world' had not been used in wine terms until the latter end of the 20th century. 1929 isn't all that long ago and it was in this year that P Morton Shand published his brilliantly entitled book, Books of Other Wines - than French .
Stuart argued that the use of the terms old world' and new world' when speaking about wines increased dramatically at the time of the now infamous Paris Tasting' in 1976.
It was at this event that the wines of California emphatically whipped the wines of France in a blind tasting scored by some of the world's leading wine experts.
The furore that ensued was nothing short of embarrassing. One of the French tasters demanded her scorecard be returned and famously snipped: "It was a false test because Californian wines are trying to become too much like French wines."
Two decades later, James Sucking from Wine Spectator was to introduce a Bordeaux tasting in the States with the words: "I had the 1870 Latour a week or so ago. I think there were still Indians in Napa Valley in 1870." Such words undeniably loaded with the suggestion that the upstarts couldn't match the experience of the old guard.
As it turns out, James Suckling wasn't right. The town of Napa was founded in 1847 and by then the Native Americans had already been decemated by smallpox. More noteworthy still was the fact that Europeans visiting the Napa Valley 20 years previously had documented successful grape cultivation.
In short, the history of grape growing and wine making in many of the countries we call new isn't as recent as we might think. South Africa's wine making heritage can be traced back to 1659 (thanks to the Dutch) and it was some 100 years earlier that missionaries in Chile were having success with País vines.
These days we wine writers and critics use phrases like it is a wine with a new world style' or it is very old world' as though the parameters are absolutely clear. The truth is that it is impossible to have such a black and white approach to wine tasting. On this point I have always been clear and day two of the seminar was an opportunity to see just how comfortable we were in that.
The president of Errazuriz is Eduardo Chadwick, who has to be one of the most engaging and charming winemakers I have ever had the good fortune to meet. I also consider him brave.
Four years ago he decided to recreate the idea of the 1976 Paris Tasting but this time with his own wines. He gathered together 36 of the world's leading wine tasters to taste sixteen wines - six Chilean, six French and four Italian from the 2000 and 2001 vintages, divided into three Chilean 2001 wines; three French 2001 wines; four Italian 2000 wines and three apiece from Chile and France from the 2000 vintage.
In the final reckoning world-famous Château Lafite, Château Margaux, Château Latour, and Italian cult wines Tignanello, Sassicaia, Solaia and Guado al Tasso were placed by judges a distance behind the two winning wines, both from Chile.
Viñedo Chadwick 2000 from Viña Errázuriz's Maipo Valley was placed first ahead of the Seña 2001 (a partnership wine between Viña Errázuriz and Robert Mondavi of California). In third place came Château Lafite 2000.
I have only ever read about such tastings but now it was my chance. Along with my fellow tasters, I was given 12 wines to taste. All I knew was that they could be French, Italian or Chilean. It was my task to place them in order of preference and to decide whether I thought the wines were old world' or new world'.
Perhaps the most revealing of my answers concerned the 2005 La Cumbre Syrah from Viña Errázuriz. I thought this was French and was the only person in the room to think so.
Why did I think that? I had written on my tasting note that it was savoury and spicy and had a slightly wild character that I strongly associate with the wines of the Rhône. I don't think my tasting note was inaccurate. It was my preconceptions that were at fault.
The second error I made was in underestimating the ability of so-called new world countries such as Chile in making wines that have that restrained, tight quality in their youth and yet with the qualities to age for years to come. I loved the last wine of the 12 but it was because of its youthful restraint that I again plumped for France - this time Bordeaux. I was once again proven wrong as the wine was revealed to be the 2006 Viñedo Chadwick from Viña Errázuriz. This time I was not alone in my view.
The final tally put E. Guigal's 2004 Côte Rôtie La Mouline at the top but it was two wines from Errázuriz that took second and third spots; 2005 La Cumbre and then 2005 Kai (Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Shiraz). Perhaps most surprising of all was the placing of the 2005 Château Haut-Brion which scored a maximum 100 Parker Points. In our tasting it was scored joint last with Italy's Sassicaia.
What can we take from that? From this modest tasting alone, I would have to say that it is wrong to make any sort of quality distinction between wines from as far afield as Chile and France. And, for the time being at least, counties like Chile represent astounding value for money. Six bottles of the La Mouline will set you back a chunky £800 from Bibendum Wine (www.bibendum-wine.co.uk ) in comparison to £130.20 for six of La Cumbre from www.everywine.co.uk The missionaries, it would appear, have done us all a favour.