Old School Or New School?
Give some consideration to the schools of thought behind the wine that you’re tasting, writes James Suckling
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.