The terms “Old World Wine” and “New World Wine” are probably terms you have heard uttered by your wine aficionado friends at some point during your journey through the world of wine. While it may seem to be a simple distinction, it is important to understand the true meaning behind a wine described as Old World or New World, as it can be quite confusing.
Now, before getting into the details and characteristics that define the two types of wine designations, it is important to understand the most basic reason as to why a wine is labeled Old or New World. The most simple explanation as to why a wine is labeled a certain way depends on the country from which the wine itself was bottled.
Old World wines are from countries or regions where winemaking (with VitisVinifera grapes) first originated. Some of these countries include France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Greece, to name a few. New World wines are from countries where winemaking (and vitis vinifera grapes) were imported during and after the age of exploration. The United States, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Chile, and South Africa are countries that produce New World wines.
Now that the basics of Old and New World wines has been covered, we can get into the history behind both designations, some of their unique qualities, and the many differences that separate one from the other.
Old World Wines
A good way to think about this is in terms of who was the colonizer, and who was the colonized. The countries that set off across the seas to find new land, such as Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy, would be considered Old World. In fact, not only does the Old World label apply to these countries, but all wine-producing regions in Europe as well as the Mediterranean basin. While the Old World designation refers to the region a particular wine comes from, it does not refer to a homogenous style. In fact, every region or country makes vastly different styles of wine, even within their own borders.
The Old World moniker is generally used to refer to the prevailing distinctions in both viticulture and winemaking philosophies of the European continent. Whereas in the New World, winemaking relies chiefly on science and the winemaker themselves, Old World winemaking emphasizes the importance of tradition and the role of terroir.
Many Old World wine regions have been able to develop and adapt techniques that best suit a particular grape-growing area due to the centuries-old history of many of the countries where these regions exist. Whether it is figuring out the ideal grape variety to plant, winemaking techniques, or even trellising methods, these regions have had ample time to perfect their trade. Due to the long history of winemaking in the Old World, certain countries have adapted designations that regulate the winemaking process: the French AOC, the Spanish DO, and the Italian DOC, for example.
Phoenicians, Romans, and Greeks were the first cultures to establish dedicated vineyards; the practice goes back several hundreds or even thousands of years. Over these centuries and millennia, time has allowed winemakers to develop techniques specifically suited for a certain region, which eventually became regulated in the form of modern day laws. This is one of the most important distinctions to make between Old World and New World: the Old World has had the time and experience to perfect the winemaking process relative to their locations.
Terroir is a describer for certain conditions that exist that are out of a winemaker’s control: topography, climate, and soil, to name a few. These particular qualities define a wine from a certain region even more so than a particular grape would. This is to say; Sangiovese Chianti would taste wholly different from a Sangiovese-based wine made anywhere else, even if the exact same winemaking approached are utilized.
A winemaker making a Trebbiano in Umbria, Italy will have been able to feature the exclusive attributes that define the Umbria wine region. The wine created, then, will have successfully expressed these traits of the terroir of the region in the form of the wine’s minerality.
Old World wines are then defined by the various regions’ history, techniques, and quality of land and soil, called terroir. New World wines have had exponentially less time to perfect winemaking techniques exclusive to New World win regions, and have had to adapt the Old World techniques and through processes of experimentation, find what works best.
New World Wines
Using our “colonizer” analogy again, Old World wines would be considered those from colonizing countries, more or less, while New World wines come from places that were colonized by the Old World: The United States, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and so on. In true colonial fashion, unlike Old World winemakers, New World winemakers are much more open to experimentation and doing things differently, against tradition.
The wines and winemakers from the New World embody this entrepreneurial spirit one might expect from descendants of immigrants that decades and centuries ago went out to find a new life in a different place. Winemaking varies dramatically around the New World, and places much less emphasis on tradition and more emphasis on winemaking processes that take advantage of technological advancement.
While wine as we know it today was brought over by colonizing forces, that is not to say there were not rudimentary wine-style alcoholic beverages in existence before their arrival. Indigenous peoples of the American continent used ingredients such a maize, potatoes, and strawberries to make their own alcoholic beverages. When colonizing forces brought over the vitis vinifera species, winemaking in the region slowly started to begin.
Over the next several centuries, the demand for wine among the people of the New World increased exponentially, creating demand for more wine production. Vineyards started popping up more than ever, in places like South Africa and Australia and even Chile and Argentina. Eventually, New World wine has become as important, if not more to a certain degree, than Old World wines to consumers.
While the same species of grape is used, vitis vinifera, the terroir and winemaking techniques of both the Old World and the New World created several differentiating characteristics. The naming of the wine, the process of winemaking, and the taste of the wines themselves are all differentiating factors between the Old World and the New.
When naming a wine, the Old World and New World go about it differently. In the Old World, the wine takes the name of the place of its origin. For example, a Malbec that was made in the Tursan region of France would be called a Tursan, not a Malbec. In the New World, conversely, the wine takes on the name of the grape that was used to make it. A case in point is that a wine made from the Malbec grape in Lujan de Cuyo, Argentina is called a Malbec, not Lujan de Cuyo.
The process in which the wine is made is different in the Old World and the New. Old World wines must adhere to strict regulations, depending on the region the wine comes from. Tradition plays a very important role, as winemaking is a centuries-old practice. Maintaining this tradition is given priority over any experimental winemaking methods. New World wines, however, have the freedom to be more experimental and take advantage of advances in modern winemaking technology. The strict traditions and regulations don’t govern winemakers in the New World as the do in the Old, allowing for less restriction on trying new methods and using processes and technology that would otherwise be forbidden.
While the same grapes might be used in both the Old World and the New, the terroir and winemaking methods used definitely bring about a strong differentiation in taste, even with the exact same grapes. Wines from the Old World tend to be leaner, containing higher levels of tannins and acids. New World wines, contrarily, tend to be richer, with a more refined taste and bolder fruit flavors. Additionally, since New World vineyards tend to be in hotter climates, the grapes tend to turn out riper than those of the Old World, creating wines that are usually more alcoholic and full-bodied.
While the “Old World versus New World” designation may seem like a simple, geographical designation, it goes far beyond just that. Yes, the geographical location is the main differentiating factor, but there are several other factors that discriminate between the two. The Old World wines are the product of centuries-old tradition and regulation, using age-old techniques that have most effectively utilized the terroir and the winemaking methods to bring out the finest characteristics of a certain grape relative to the region. New World wines have more freedom to experiment and utilize new technologies in winemaking. Additionally, the way a wine is labeled is different between the Old and the New.
So next time you open up that Malbec from Argentina, or that Cahors from France, remember that while these may be made from the same type of grape, there are many differences that make each wine unique and great in its own way.