The advent of the new year has us looking at the past with reminiscence and regarding the future with a sense of hope and renewal. It is the time when that old adage, “out with the old and in with the new!” is most declared. Speaking of old and new, now might be an appropriate time to elaborate on the terms “old world” and “new world” (when it comes to wine of course) and discuss a bit about the ideas behind them.
Keeping it simple is often the best philosophy, and the same method can be helpful when exploring this subject--particularly because wine is anything but. Any self-respecting winemaker would be aghast to hear his finished product referred to as such. A wine may be straightforward, clean, focused. But it should never be simple. After all, the process of making wine is not simple; it is integrated, complex, and involved. And, as many know, it revolves largely around the intent and desire of the wine crafter.
There are two ways in which old world and new world are referenced. The first and most rudimentary to understand is the regional perspective. Old world literally refers to the countries that have been producing wine the longest. This means France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The history of winemaking goes way, way back to a time in which our modern palates might not even recognize wine as such. But history is not usually simple and this isn't a history lesson. Suffice to say, these countries are known for producing a specific style of wine in which the terroir is the most important element of production. Terroir is the most basic, integral component of the European laws responsible for controlling quality and tradition, like the AOC (Appellation d'origine controlee), the French code of ethics and practices by which winemakers in regions such as Burgundy must abide.
Long ago, European winemakers decided that certain types of grape varietals planted in certain soils and aged in a certain way for a certain amount of time resulted in the most delicious and elegant wines. The finished product was all about showcasing the terroir of the region, and this came to be known as the old world style. In a sense, old world wine is about pride in country--albeit pride in that country's land as much as in the conviction, philosophy and craftsmanship of its winemakers. Depending on who you ask, some might define terroir as any element of wine production that does not involve human interference. Thus, it consists of any natural element of wine growth such as wind, rain, soil, aspect, temperature, etc. While the old world winemaker matters, it matters most that he understands how to craft a wine that shows off the beauty of the land on which it was grown.
The second way a wine is considered old world or new world is from a stylistic perspective. From a taste standpoint, old world style wines are usually more subtle and complex, containing elements of terroir and oak that are often off-putting to novice wine drinkers: Terms such as barnyard, wet soil, leather and tobacco are often used to describe old world wines. Conversely, the style of wine production known as new world is much more about showcasing the fruit of a particular varietal and the skill of the winemaker rather than the terroir. It's how the winemaker extracts big fruit flavors, imparts oak nuances of creamy vanilla or spice, and develops a long finish. Geographically speaking, new world wines are wines produced in North America, South America, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia--basically anywhere not considered old world.
A great way to explore the differences between old and new is to order a flight and sample them side by side. Try the Copitas De Vino at Eola Wine Company for $13 and taste a little bit of Spain and South America without moving from your seat. Or go head to head with two heavyweights and try the J.L. Chave “Mon Coeur” Blend from Rhone, France ($11/$44) next to a California cabernet like Est. 75 (also $11/$44).
Old world and new world wines might be considered archetypes of their histories, philosophies and countrymen. Old world Europe produces wines that are refined, austere, and rooted in a philosophy of rigid, time-tested tradition. New World styles exhibit modern innovation, unapologetic candor and bold tasting notes. When it comes down to it, an old world region may choose to make a new world style wine, and vice versa. And while people might prefer one over the other, it should be remembered that there is a time and a place for everything. So the next time you are trying to decide what wine you would like to drink, old world versus new world is often the best place to start--right after red versus white. There is no right or wrong, just old and new.