It’s easy to recognise a blockbuster wine for what it is: there are powerful wood and fruit flavours, it’s juicy and brash. The other side of the spectrum is not as easily defined – a fine line divides elegant/refined from insubstantial and bland. But certainty about what describes these broad categories doesn’t help when it comes to aesthetic judgement. Wines which are less in-you-face are not always better, while blockbuster wines can very well done. Those which launched South Australia onto the world map may have been obvious and oaky in their youth, but anyone who has sampled a fully mature Grange would agree it’s a great and unique expression of the winemaker’s art.
“Flashy” and “showy” are descriptors which used to apply more generally to New World wines. Lately however, there are serious French properties releasing wines with very visible new wood aromas (together with the elevated alcohols which come from the impact of climate change). There are also New World producers where the opposite applies, who go to great lengths to ensure that the bouquet does not depend on the choice of cooper, whose wines convey their aesthetic message in an understated and subtle way.
This is not always easy for them. The finesse associated with great wines recognised for their subtlety, energy and refinement is the result of a multitude of factors, of which ancient vineyards whose fruit delivers more concentrated and intense flavours is one. Soil and climate do not necessarily divide the Old World from the New – but centuries of viticultural and winemaking experience of a site certainly do.
From a consumer perspective, the long-established classics come with the guarantee of pedigree. Wine lovers are more likely to age them long enough to obtain the full expression of the terroir. This puts the New World at something of a disadvantage: how are consumers, confronting a new release from a new site, supposed to know that the seemingly anodyne young wine will transform into a thing of beauty? If there’s nothing evident in those first few years after the vintage, and no history which encourages serious cellaring, why waste the space and effort in the off-chance of a fabulous outcome?
There is another, darker side to this coin: in the absence of a track record, winemakers can make promises about future potential based on nothing more than wishful thinking (a positive take), selling enthusiasm (a neutral take) or shady barrow-boy tactics (a not-improbable but negative take). By the time the punter finds that his vinous treasure has not so much flown as plummeted it’s too late.
There’s no simple barometer to serve as a guide. Craig and Anne Wessels have been making wine at Restless River in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley for about 15 years. In that time they have acquired a loyal following which takes up their production religiously every year. “Religiously” is not a term used frivolously: it requires something of an act of faith to see in their wines at the time of release the prospective depth and complexity which might emerge several years hence.
What you get now is a finely crafted, if somewhat elusive, pure expression – of cultivar rather than of place. Craig is not seeking the easy, showy way forward. He uses very little new wood, so the Chardonnay (Ave Marie) is not brash or oaky, and it comes without the easy-to-understand notes of butterscotch and marzipan. It is more lime than tropical, more fresh and savoury than plush and creamy. The Pinot Noir (Le Luc) has black cherry notes rather than the softer bruised strawberry aromas.
The 2017s have just come to market, and are still a little angular. Craig reckons they need at least another year before they begin opening up. No one buying red or white Burgundy from a village grower would expect to drink the wine before it was three to five years old. New World producers, helping to shape and grow new appellations, don’t enjoy the same licence.