Apart from movies on pirates, secret treasure islands and wine, there aren’t many things today that still rely on the good old separation between Old World and New World. In fact, it might have been new to the people back 500 years ago, but with Chile making wine since 1530, Argentina since 1560, South Africa since 1655 or even California since 1697, it doesn’t look like the New World is that new anymore…
So why do we keep using these terms today and what do they really mean? The separation between both was invented in the Old World, Europe, back in the day when discoveries were happening and new land was being found. Because it was born in Europe, we decided that anybody else would be called the New World. When it comes to wine, the first traces we found actually originate in Iran, Georgia and Armenia, all outside of modern European boundaries. It is probably true that what was a sporadic habit back there has then been taken to Europe and perfected, especially with the great input of monks through History. But the reason why we still use these terms is because if both worlds actually produce wine, their visions of what it is they are doing and how they should make it are somehow different.
Wine: Produce of Nature or Craft of Men?
In the Old World, we believe that wine is either made by God or Nature, depending on the area and the various revolutions they had. In our vision, men don’t make wine, we are only here to make sure that the grapes are healthy and perfect by the time they get to the winery. The rest, how grape juice turns into this incredible drink that is wine, is kept almost magical or mystical. Of course we do know since the discoveries of Louis Pasteur that everything is down to the yeast turning sugar into alcohol and CO2, but even in our languages we don’t have a word for “winemaker”. Us French, we say “vigneron” or “viticulteur” which stand for “vine grower”, and it goes the same for the Spanish and “viticultor” or the Italians and “vignaiolo”. In most of the New World however, it is believed that wine is made by men and women and that the real work happens in the winery more than in the field. The word “winemaker” is more often used than “vine grower”, and in some areas where you find vine growers, they usually sell their grapes to makers that will turn them into wine.
In most European languages, we don’t have a word for "winemaker"…
The Concept of Terroir
This fundamental difference led to the creation of a concept in the Old World called “terroir”. This word that you might have heard before refers to some sort of a package, a very elaborate GPS coordinate if you prefer, that takes in consideration a place with its soil types, its usual climate and its traditions, whether it is specific grape varietals they have been growing or specific methods they used for making or ageing wine.
With time, the concept of terroir gave birth to the AOC system in France, which then spread across Europe under the more recent name PDO, for Protected Denomination of Origin. Let me give you an example with Chablis, the famous white wine from France, in order to be called Chablis, it must be made in the same delimited area in Northern Burgundy, always from 100% Chardonnay grapes and always made the same way. While protecting our traditions and wine styles, this PDO system doesn’t allow any flexibility for the wineries and can sometimes be seen as too restrictive. For example, in Burgundy again, hailstones are quite common at the time of harvests and can destroy a large part of the crops, but it is unclear in the PDO whether vine growers can protect their vines with a net to prevent their loss or not. Modern technology and business-driven minds have led to spraying special salts from planes to dissolve the clouds before the storm. Threatening the natural balance of their eco-system, this proves that PDO systems might need to be re-evaluated.
Meanwhile, in the New World, flexibility is the key and since wine is made by men more than by Nature, the makers are allowed to “fix” Nature. Some Australian winemakers were famous for saying that “soil is dirt”, meaning that there was nothing that important in the soil but that the true influence on the final wine would come from the grapes and the way they were vinified. If a year was more suited to another grape varietal than the current one, or if the market was shifting towards another varietal, the winery could just plant that new one instead of the old one. This new vision gave birth to a new generation of labels on bottles that would quote the grape varietal in big where traditional Old World labels would have quoted a place of origin.
"Wine is the Second Sauce"
Another important difference for us, consumers, is how and when should wine be drunk. In the Old World, we usually think that wine is “the second sauce”. This means that we usually think of the food we are going to have before we even consider the wine we will drink with it. This has led to wines that are at least food-friendly, often food dependent. The magic relationship between wine and food is enhanced by a sharper acidity in our whites for pairing with seafood, sharper tannins in most French reds for the rich traditional stews or rich cuts of beef and game, in Italian reds a sharper acidity is designed for their high acid-based cuisine using tomatoes, pesto or olive oil… And overall, the flavours of our wines might seem unbalanced or too strong until they are paired with the right food, creating a fantastic balance of aromas and structure.
In most of the New World, wine is just a drink and its quality should not rely on your ability to pair it with the right food. Therefore, their wines will take over your taste buds in a very balanced way, often seen as more easy-drinking, with fruit-forward aromas and sometimes a touch of sugar left to balance an acidity that would be too high without food.
This major difference is to keep in mind for your next purchase of wine, since it is usually true to say that New World wines are in general better than Old World wines if you are not eating but it goes the other way around if you are eating, with in that case the need to find the right Old World wine for your food. For more info on how to pair Food & Wine, check out our Box Pairing System on the website.
“Our wines in Europe might seem unbalanced or too strong until they are paired with the right food, creating a fantastic balance of aromas and structure.”
Having said that, in the real world, nothing is ever black & white. Today, the Old World is allowing more room to flexibility, with the example of the PGI system, which stands for Protected Geographical Indication. Unlike PDOs, this doesn’t restrict the grape varietals or methods, but only the place of origin. Some regions within the big producers of the Old World are actually leaders for these new flexible wines, the Languedoc in France, Veneto in Italy or Pénédès in Spain would be top examples. These areas have shown that the creation of top caliber wines was possible outside of the strict rules of the PDO classification.
On the other hand, the New World is made of very different countries with a completely different History. Places like Argentina or South Africa have been hugely inspired by the Old World in their winemaking practices, and their wines often share this relationship with food and a richer structure designed for pairings. It goes pretty much the same for California, where districts of origin are clearly defined and where the appellation system is pushing towards something very much like the Old World.
So the World as we know it is constantly changing, today it is common to find Italian beer and English wine, and a producer like China now ranks number 9 worldwide for its production, before Germany. As wine lovers, it is sometimes hard to keep our info up to date but at the same time, you will never find yourself in a situation where you have learned everything… So keep being curious, there is plenty to discover in both Worlds out there.
Both Worlds in a Few Words…
New world wines display strong aromas from the start but are often shorter on the palate, with more fruity and floral notes.
Old World wines are often long lasting with complex aromas that can be earthy, minerally, spicy or meaty.
Certified Sommelier (CMS)