What the Heck is New World vs. Old World Wine?

“This is definitely an old world wine”, says your friend, a freshly baked self-appointed wine expert, and you have no choice but to nod knowingly, or you risk to be classified as wine-illiterate. But do you know what he just said, and what have you agreed with?

So the theme of today’s discussion, class, is “what the heck are the new world and old world wines, and what do these terms actually mean?”

Lets start with Old World wines
Wine is a discipline which is studied in the universities. Wine is a subject of myriad books and articles. It is expected and obvious that wine has its own “technical” language, the “winespeak”, and it is for our (oenophiles) own benefit to understand what the other people are saying.

It is generally considered that people started making wines about 6,000 years ago, somewhere in the Middle East/Mediterranean - Georgia, Iran, Greece and number of other countries claim to be the cradle of winemaking, but this is a subject for the whole other discussion.

Birthplace of wine
In the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in Georgia is thought to be the first known place where wine was cultivated around 5000 - 7000 BC.

We know very little about the actual styles of wines produced thousands of years ago, we can only guess how those wines tasted (we don’t have too many tasting notes left from those times), and of course those are not the wines we mean when we say “Old World”.

We can safely say that Modern history of wine started some time in 16th/17th century in Europe – and we have some historical references which help us understand how those wines tasted. Majority of the wines were produced simply for the local consumption, and they were usually made to complement the local food. Most of the European countries were making wines, some more successfully, like France and Italy, some less, but the wine was a very common product in Europe. Wines were also becoming an important trade product, so different regions started developing their own style, to be recognizable and distinct. Dry wines with restrained fruit expression, complex herbal profile and noticeable acidity became a signature of the early leading regions, such as Bordeaux in France. Later on, when the others joined the flow, such as Rioja in the late 1880s–1890s, the overall focus was on the restrained wines, making them stylistically similar to Bordeaux.

Immigrants arriving into the United States.
Immigrants arriving into the United States.

When people left Europe searching for a different life, the vines, winemaking skills and passion for wine was part of their luggage. As immigrants were arriving to Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Northern America, making of the wines was one of the important priorities for the new colonists.  It took them some time to eventually find the right places, such as Napa in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Barossa Valley in Australia, as well as many other great locations around the world. Of course they did, and they started making good wines. I’m sure you know that success of any business is defined by “location, location, location”, and yes, this is an extremely arguable viewpoint in the times of globalization and virtualization. But this post is not an economics research, so let me get on with it. When it comes to the good wines, that “3-locations” paradigm is even 10 times more important. You need a good location for your vineyards depending on the type of grapes you are growing, in order to make a good wine.

Now, I’m not the wine historian, and this is only a blog post, not a book, so let me fast forward to the last quarter of the 20th century, when the wines from the new regions started to make sense to the wine aficionados around the world. What was interesting that many of the wines from those new regions started putting the fruit first - they moved away from the old, traditionally restrained Bordeaux style, and started shamelessly putting bright, fleshy fruit in the forefront of that sip. You see where I’m getting with this? These were the wines of the … New World, yes. And to stress the distinction, the restrained, herbs and minerality focused wines became collectively known as … yes, you got that - an Old World wines.

Now, let’s put our ducks in the row. Old World style wines are restrained in their fruit expression, focused on the herbs and minerality, and produced in the “old world” European countries - France, Italy, Spain. The New World style wines are focused on the fruit first (they are often called “fruit-forward” - now you picked up one more of the winespeak terms), and produced in the New World countries - Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and United States.

So now you can confidently converse with your wine-expert friend and nod - or not - to his or her statement about the “old world style”of wine. Now you know, that the “old world” means restrained fruit expression, and “new world” means opposite, a “fruit-forward” exuberance. And we can end our lesson here on a happy note. But…

Have you ever been to a situation when the teacher says “forget everything you knew before”? I hate to do this with your newly acquired “old world/new world" knowledge, but - now, class, forget everything you knew before. Okay, let’s reduce the drama a bit. The peculiar part of the “old world/new world” definition is that it has perfect meaning as a definition of style, but today it lost all of its geographic boundaries. What I mean is that just by looking at the bottle of wine, and seeing that the wine is made in France or Spain, you can’t make any assumptions regarding the way the wine will taste. You can’t say “so this is French wine, thus I expect that it will have a limited fruit expressions, lots of herbs and high acidity” - as a blunt statement, this will simply fail you again and again. Even if we will narrow down the winemaking region from the whole country (like Spain) to the particular region (Rioja, for example), you will still find a wide diversity of styles of the Rioja wines, from dry and restrained such as Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia to the Rioja Alavesa, a lot more concentrated and fruit forward type. Let’s take a look at a few more places.

Have you tasted any of the modern day Bordeaux wines? How restrained are those (not very, in my opinion). Talking about the same France, the red wines of Provence (very rare, I know), or red wines from Loire (Cab Franc from Burgueil and Chinon) are perfectly aligned with the old world style adage - high acidity, limited fruit, vegetative complexity. But think of Languedoc or Cote Du Rhône wines - many of them boast fresh, young fruit, vibrant and energetic, and are not ashamed of it.

Moving on to Spain, again we have a full range. We already mentioned Rioja, where many wines still can be classified as “old world”. But have you ever tasted Grenache-based Alto Moncayo wines? Or how about pretty much all wines from Jumilla region, never mind the flagship El Nido? All of those can be called “Spanish answer to Napa” - exuberant, bright, concentrated fruit-forward wines.

Let’s finish our “old world” tour with Italy. The picture remains the same - a full range of style, even within a single region. Think about Tuscany - majority of the flagship Chianti wines are restrained in the classical “old world” style - earthy, leathery profile, with abundance of herbs, and restrained supportive fruit. And then right in the same region you got so called “super-tuscan” - Tignanello, Ornellaia, Tenuta Sette Ponti and lots of others - big, bold, “in-your-face” wines of clearly a “new world” upbringing.

Do you think the situation is different in the New World? Actually, to a degree, yes - if we look at the ratios of “typical style” versus “non-typical style”, the percentages will be a lot higher in the new world countries. But still, the blind assumptions can be dangerous. Taking Napa as an example, yes, the majority of producers will clearly identify with the “new world style”, but then if you ever tasted super-restrained, super-lean Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Corison, or forest floor-loaded, earthy Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Dunn, you would relate to how “out of style” those wines are.

Okay, class, I think our time is almost over. So what did you learn today? I hope you now understand the winespeak of “old world style” and the “new world style”. I also hope that you understand that similarly to everything else in our world, blunt and blind labeling is dangerous. As you need to get to know your fellow humans before you can have an opinion about them, you should taste the wines to have an opinion and to know if you like them or not. And once you taste the wine, is it that important if the wine is a new world or an old world style? Probably not so much. What’s important is whether you like the wine or not, and if it gives you pleasure. The pleasure is what you are looking for in wine.

But this is something we will talk about next time. Until then - cheers!

Anatoli Levine is the author of the Talk-A-Vino Blog at: http://talk-a-vino.com