Wine: Get fresh

The success of New World wines has encouraged a taste for fruitier, younger styles. Now even the French are taking note

World Cup years were the theme for the bring-a-bottle parties hosted by a fellow wine writer during various of the England games played in France this summer. There were 1994s and 1990s along with Bordeaux 1982, an assortment of ancient Muscadet and Valpolicella, a memorable 1978 Grange Hermitage from Australia and an early 1998, a Clare Valley Riesling, brought by Tim Adams. Our generous host excelled himself with a large quantity of wines from his cellar, including, from 1966 itself, a number of grand bottles of Bordeaux: Chateau Beychevelle, Chateau Pichon Lalande and Chateau Margaux.

It all helped to take one's mind off David Beckham, but there was little rhyme or reason as to what was good and what was less so. The Beychevelle was surprisingly fresh and lively but without the depth or complexity of the Pichon Lalande. But not all Pichon Lalande was sublime, and the Chateau Margaux disappointed. The 1982 Chateau d'Angludet, not a cru classe, was a lovely mouthful of fruit, at its perfect peak for drinking now.

It took me back to a lunch party in Bordeaux last year, where a number of chateau owners took pleasure in mocking the British for liking their wines too old. When I suggested that the trend, especially among younger wine drinkers, was towards enjoying wines with more fruit and less bouquet, their response was to criticise the British press for encouraging readers to drink Australian wines.

It's not surprising the traditional-minded French see the wines of the New World as upstarts. Ten years ago, the New World had only just begun to impinge on our noses and palates. Today, we've developed an insatiable thirst for the taste of Australian Shiraz, Chilean Merlot and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon, not to mention Chardonnay from just about anywhere. The flavours are clean and fruity, the impact immediate. In with simplicity, out with mystique, with class-ridden stuffiness and the Puritan ethic which made wine so inaccessible.

The idea that a serious wine has to be capable of ageing for decades is ingrained in our culture. Probably the commonest letter or radio question a wine journalist has to answer is when will this 1975/1976/1977 Beaujolais/ Soave/Muscadet be ready for drinking. It is automatically assumed that the gathering of dust adds a quantum leap of quality.

But increasingly, wines are being made to be drunk young. And not just everyday wines. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Pinotage and Viognier can be made for sumptuous drinking within the first two to three years of their lives. No more vexed questions of when to drink it, or past- its-sell-by-date disappointments. The supermarkets have understood this better then the high-street chains. They have increased their share of the wine market from around 50 per cent five years ago to nearly 80 per cent today by offering such instant gratification. Meanwhile the two biggest high-street chains, Victoria Wine and Thresher, are to merge.

Cottoning on to the fact that they must adapt or go the way of all dinosaurs, Europe's wine producers are starting to fight back with more approachable styles. You can see the transformation even in traditional regions such as Rioja, Tuscany and Bordeaux itself. This is as it should be for the vast majority of their wines.

These regions do, however, possess tried and tested vineyards with a track record of producing fine wines of individual character. They may only represent a small proportion of total wine production, but wines of real concentration and intensity do need time for the genie in the bottle to work its magic. When vintage conditions are ideal, grape varieties such as Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo's Nebbiolo and the Rhone's Syrah can benefit from the meticulous care that goes into making fine wine. But a question mark arises over the proliferating number of wines made with lashings of oak and fleshy fruit in an apparent attempt to woo the American press and win wine competitions. No one knows if these flashy wines will stand the test of time.

Fine wine is no longer the exclusive preserve of Europe's traditional wine regions. It's no coincidence that the American auction market has overtaken the British for the first time in history. Or that Christie's held its first California Classic sale in June. As the market for wine broadens, wine drinkers are looking for new tastes, better quality, more character. True, the new wine regions of the world still have growing pains to go through before they can deliver a better guarantee of longevity. But it's happening, and the potential to make finer wines with the capacity to improve with age is greater than it's ever been. So, even if you only drink everyday wine today, don't brick up the wine cellar quite yet. Tomorrow, you might just need it

White of the week

1997 Woodcutter's White, Barsonyos, pounds 2.99, Safeway. Not many people can pronounce Cserzegi Fuszeres, which is probably why this Sauvignon taste- alike is called Woodcutter's White. It's one of those rare creatures, a characterful wine at under pounds 3, and, if you must know, you pronounce the grape "chair-ciggy-few-seresh".

Red of the week

1997 Quinta das Setencostas Red, Alenquer, pounds 4.99, Unwins, Oddbins. A traditional Portuguese blend of grape varieties whose names make frightening reading: Periquita, Camarate, Tinta Miuda and Preto Martinho. A juicy red with mulberry fruit and damsony acidity softened by maturation in Portuguese oak casks.

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