Normally I try to avoid pigeonholing and categorizing wine too intensely; the thing about winemaking and viticulture is that they’re seemingly built to buck trends, to defy the accepted knowledge, to alter the industry’s trajectory one barrel at a time. And yet, one of the most overused categorizations in the wine world, “old world/new world,” still has tremendous traction in the minds of wine professionals and consumers alike. For better or worse, this distinction continues to dominate the zeitgeist: It shapes palates, affects prices, divides households, and fundamentally calls into question the motivations of many a winemaker.
So what is “new world” and “old world” wine? Broadly speaking, it’s a geographical distinction between regions that have been making wine for centuries (mainland European nations, primarily), and those that are much newer to the viticulture scene (the Americas, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa, for example)—relatively speaking, of course.
But wait: Why should it matter which side of the pond your wine comes from? As long as the growing conditions are right, good wine is good wine…right? Well, yes and no. The two sides of the “pond” represent fundamentally different approaches to winemaking, with a caveat that cannot be overstated: This is a general statement, and scores of wines break the mold and “jump the pond” every year. Not surprisingly, though, the youngness of a region’s wine tradition often plays a fairly large part in how modern its approach is.
Old world wines, those primarily from mainland Europe, have a glaring advantage in terms of viticulture: The continent is relatively small, and the collective area that is any good at producing quality wine is even smaller. At the same time, much of Europe has been worked and reworked by agriculturally driven societies for centuries, and wine has played a central part in the continent’s development.
Finding the right growing site, with the right soil and the right weather, and then determining which grape varietals, growing techniques, and vinification strategies produce the best wine on that site, have historically been the biggest challenges in the process of making great wine. Traditionally, it’s been trial and error, and due to the amount of time it takes vines to mature, this process has always been a lengthy one. So, after centuries of this experimentation, Europe has, in large part, uncovered all of its best properties, and determined the optimal varietals and techniques for those places.
What all of this means for wine from the “old world” is that the classic styles have typically been determined organically, and often focus more on expressing the land, the terroir, than on the “hand of man.” Traditions in Europe, especially France, are nothing if not persistent and sacred, and this is reflected in the winegrowing and legislation.
New world wines, those from areas that were largely colonized by Europeans, come from a different, more modern era and, not coincidentally, represent a fundamentally different approach to winemaking. Rather than focus so intently on displaying the place and trying to organically determine the limits and potential of that place and various grapes, the approach here is more about modern science and what the winemaker can do. Rather than endure centuries of plodding, determined testing, modern “new world” winemaking techniques focus on how the winemaker can affect the grapes in a certain area, and which grapes produce the best wine in that area on a more scientific basis.
This approach provides many more opportunities to make great wine quickly, and tailor the product to a market that demands certain styles. Biochemistry, rather than the traditions of yore, is the mechanism, but not the driver. As with traditional old worlds, the focus is still on producing great wine; the difference here is found in the methodologies, which in turn inform the styles of the wine.
Whereas traditionally styled European wines are often intent on what the earth does, this style is not so limited. Higher alcohol, more sugar, more oak, added enzymes, etc., are just a few of the ways that new world wines tailor themselves more towards the modern consumer’s desires.
But here’s the big question about old vs. new: Why should you care? The reality is that there are plenty of wines from the old world that are new world in style, and vice versa, so looking at a label may not always be enough. The distinction between new world and old is not so much geographical anymore, especially with so many “flying winemakers” consulting on multiple continents at any given time.
This stylistic distinction matters, then, because it’s so often used to describe wine by reviewers, wineshop employees, etc.—the ones who you often trust to pick wine for you—and wine is not only about which fruits and spices you can pick out of a sniff or a taste. Every consumer should confidently know what they like, and why. Concentration on terroir is lovely, but can sometimes ignore the all-important fact that wine should be delicious. At the same time, too much human manipulation can strip a wine of its uniqueness, its soul. Above all, though, these two ‘distinct’ approaches to wine simply highlight a much larger reality in the world of wine: style matters, place matters, but there are no absolutes.
Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wineguildcville.com.