Recently I was moderating a wine-and-food seminar when the topic turned to how many wine drinkers are bucking well-established trends of buying “old-world” wines and embracing extremely low-cost “new-world” wines. It was then that one of the panelists raised a question that got me thinking: “When it comes to wine and the contemporary American wine consumer, is the Old World really the Old World?”
When many industry veterans think of “old-world” wines, they envision France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal---countries producing wines that longstanding wine drinkers were reared on, the benchmarks for all comparisons. Many of us have palates trained toward old-world countries and their wines and harbor tastes and preferences that were developed when new-world wines weren’t as readily available or their potential had yet to be realized.
Today’s emerging wine consumers do not follow yesterday’s guidelines or taste preferences. For them, benchmark wines, or those that they have had the most experience with, are very often new-world wines from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile. Conversely, old-world selections are recently discovered territories to be explored.
An understanding of the present-day American wine experience---and its focus on new-world wines---is especially important for the hospitality industry. Why? Because if we want these emerging wine consumers to buy old-world wines at the bar or in the dining room, we have to make a comfortable connection between the wines of both worlds.
For many guests, old-world selections simply aren’t as easy to understand as new-world wines. For starters, most of them are characterized by geography. Just look to Sancerre, Barolo, and Rioja, which are all actual places. Most people are unaware of what grape types are grown or what styles of wines are produced in those areas. And because they were brought up on new-world wines, which tend to underscore the importance of varietal on the label, these new-world-oriented wine lovers are baffled or intimidated by these “foreign” bottlings.
Adding to the confusion is the difference in flavor profiles between old- and new-world wines. Drinkers reared on new-world wines are often surprised to find that, in comparison, many old-world wines taste tart, lean, and more austere. You need only compare a classic Pauillac to a Napa Valley Cabernet or a Côte de Nuits Burgundy to a Russian River Pinot Noir.
When listing old-world wines, we need to think about new-world ways of introducing them to make them a more appealing or secure choice to the new-world audience. One strategy is to follow the example set by Amazon.com: for each item offered on that Web site, there is an accompanying list of recommended similar selections. Or you can introduce unfamiliar wines on your wine list by including little hints such as, “If you like merlot, you may like this Pomerol” or more wine-specific descriptions that help put wines into a familiar context.
You also might consider grouping old- and new-world wines together---for example, feature California or New Zealand Pinot Noir in the same section as red Burgundy. And when your wine list includes old-world wines like Sancerre, consider adding the grape variety or varieties in parentheses to ground people unfamiliar with geographically identified wines. Restaurants that offer wine flights can help consumers make the connection between geography and grape by creating selections that put old- and new-world together. For example, a Syrah flight could include a Côte-Rôtie, a California or Washington Syrah, and an Australian Shiraz.
Regardless of how you draw parallels between the Old and New Worlds, guests arrive in your dining room with a myriad of taste preferences. It’s presumptuous to assume that wine drinkers entering the market know where old-world wines are made and what they’re made of. With or without a sommelier on the floor, you’re providing a great service to your staff and guests if you create a wine program that helps educate and broaden their palates. Advancing your guests’ knowledge of old-world wines is good common-sense marketing. It offers them a wonderful taste opportunity and additional benchmarks from which to compare and further refine their tastes and knowledge.