A Matter of Style
I try to think of the style debate like the different ways one could prepare strawberries. Unadorned, the flavors are subtle, flirting with pleasurable bitterness. Prepared strawberries, like your grandmother probably served you, offer a bright, sweet, burst of flavor as they hit your tongue. Same fruit, different decisions on what to do with it. The parallel works for wine.
When the French (and many other old world winemakers) produce wine, they choose methods that impart the earthy flavors, or terroir. Think of picking strawberries right out of the patch, popping them in your mouth on a warm day, dust and all. The earth comes through, and the strawberries have that natural fruit sweetness.
The easiest way to demonstrate how winemakers can determine a wine's character is the use of oak barrels. Aging wine in oak barrels creates a flavor profile depending on the wood. French winemakers leave wine for a short time in older oak, which gives the wine with some wood flavor, but not a strong oak taste. Traditionally, many French bottles are designed to lie for a while so the flavors meld and gain complexity.
When Americans (and other new world winemakers) produce wine, most favor methods that will bring out the fruit's flavor, like picking the strawberries and sprinkling them with sugar to enhance the sugars already present in the fruit.
Returning to the oak barrel example, American winemakers often use new-oak barrels that are charred ("toasted") on the inside. They'll leave the wine in the barrel for a substantial period of time before bottling, which makes a wine with a strong oak taste (like allowing the strawberries to steep in syrup). American wines are often ready as soon as they hit the shelves.
One more style note: Style is a continuum. Some wines strike a balance between fruit and earth; others fall towards either the earth side or the fruit side.
Try 'em all.
As an aside...
This leaves one more question: If wine is a matter of style, why the France-America, Old World-New World animosity?
Americans think that a wine should be full of taste for immediate enjoyment: we're big, better, faster. French think of wine in terms of subtlety and slow seduction; harmonizing with food, avoiding overpowering tastes.
It's a matter of style.
To recap: French prefer subtlety, Americans prefer a more up-front approach. One isn't better than the other - though many would disagree with me. The French say American wines are too strong for food; Americans say French wines are too earthy. But with experimentation, you'll likely enjoy a variety - I can't emphasize this enough.
Aug. 1, 2001