Old School Or New School?

Give some con­sid­er­a­tion to the schools of thought be­hind the wine that you’re tast­ing, writes James Suck­ling

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life Wine -

am start­ing to use the term “old school” to de­scribe nu­mer­ous wines that I taste as a critic. This year I have al­ready tasted close to 5,000 wines from all over the world, but mostly from Bordeaux, Italy, Ar­gentina and Chile, and I have jot­ted down “old school” to de­scribe a num­ber of the wines.

It’s a slightly deroga­tory term. The wines I de­scribe as old school are slightly un­bal­anced and show overly ripe fruit, over-ex­trac­tion of tan­nins and too much new oak; they are heavy and al­co­holic, even slightly sweet, as well as chewy and overtly vel­vety tex­tured with lots of vanilla char­ac­ter. They im­press some wine drinkers but, alas, they are so con­cen­trated that it’s hard to fin­ish a glass. Such wines were ex­tremely pop­u­lar in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I ad­mit I even liked some be­cause they were so ob­vi­ous and he­do­nis­tic. Yet they were over­done. They are not what I want to drink.

I look for wines that give the drinker great plea­sure and bal­ance. I cham­pion wines with clar­ity and pre­ci­sion, wines that are true ex­am­ples of where they come from and what they should be. They are wines with great drink­a­bil­ity and au­then­tic­ity.

Some may find it too sim­plis­tic, but when I rate a wine 90 points or more, out­stand­ing qual­ity, I need to be­lieve that I can fin­ish the glass with great en­joy­ment. Wines I rate 95 points or more are those that I could fin­ish the bot­tle alone!

You might ask how could a wine critic rate as out­stand­ing a wine that he or she couldn’t man­age to drink a whole glass of? Yet I see peo­ple all the time drink­ing highly rated wines (not by me) and they can’t even fin­ish the bot­tle. The wine is over­done, with too much fruit, al­co­hol and tan­nins.

A re­cent din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with a group of friends in Hong Kong un­der­lined this point for me. We were lucky enough to at­tend the Four Sea­sons in May for a din­ner cre­ated by three chefs whose restau­rants hold eight Miche­lin stars be­tween them. The menu was the work of the chefs from three-star Le Cinq in Paris, two-star Caprice and three-star Lung King Heen. The lat­ter two are restau­rants at the Four Sea­sons.

To make a long story short, I clearly pre­ferred the Chinese food. It was much less elab­o­rate than the of­fer­ings from the other two chefs, both French. The dishes cre­ated by Lung King Heen’s Chan Yan-tak high­lighted the qual­ity of the in­gre­di­ents used rather than ad­di­tives and tech­nique.

This re­minded me that great wines of today and the past should do the same. They should have an hon­esty and clar­ity that fo­cus on the in­trin­sic qual­ity of the grapes and not the tech­nique or ma­nip­u­la­tion of the wine­maker. It has to be more about the wine and less about wine­mak­ing, and this brings us back to a new school or new clas­si­cism in wine styles and pro­files.

It’s some­thing to think about the next time you buy and drink a top wine. I cer­tainly think about it when I’m tast­ing a wine in my role as a critic. In the end, drink­ing a great bot­tle of wine or eat­ing an out­stand­ing meal in a res­tau­rant is a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence—just en­joy it.

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