Wine 101

8. Old World vs. New World

Yet another expression you hear a lot that has lost considerable meaning through years of use and abuse.

The distinction, however, tends to refer to the philosophy and tradition animating wine producers – and yes, you can taste it! Let’s take a few minutes to chat about the main differences between these two as well as their meaning as flavor descriptors. It will save you a puzzled look for the next time around!

What Does New World Wine Even Mean?

Between you and me, I have no trouble understanding why someone who is told that a wine is presenting “very new world” aromas would react somewhat like this:

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Contrary to what one might think, the term has nothing to do with the age of the wine as such (ie. A Bordeaux 2017 will always be Old World even if the ink on the label is barely dry from the press). What the hell are we talking about then? We’re talking about thegeographical origin of the wines, which determines the soil and often (but not always!) the personality of the wine we may find in the bottle. Let’s proceed one “type” at a time to see what this lingo actually means.

1. Where Do Old World Wines Come From?

Tip 1: When there is a legit fucking castle on the land, chances are you’re in the Old World – photo credit: Renaud Camus

I know this is as ethnocentric and orientalist as can be, but such is life. We define the Old World as Europe, especially countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. A little more inclusive (and historically correct) definition would also include all regions that have been producing wine for thousands of years. Notably, this would include Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. Besides, it is always an interesting plan to tell your French pals that the first commercial winemaking artifacts are actually from Armenia , and not their dear homeland. Be sure to have an exit nearby when you do, however…

The world as it was seen by “Old Worlders” in 1570.

2. What Old World Wine Tastes Like

Now, you’ll have to understand it would be real hard to describe all  wines from the Old World with any given set of qualifiers. See, your German Riesling is quite different from that Sauternes, and that’s especially true if we’re comparing a bottle of cheap Relax to a Château d’Yquem, for instance.

This doesn’t mean that the dichotomy is completely without merit. Of course, we’re (grossly) generalizing to make things simpler, but you know I don’t mind a little vulgar in my vulgarization, so there you have it. To be sure, here are some key features that are normally associated to the two poles.

2.1. Features wines from the old world

  • less “intense” and more subtle (more of a soft kiss than a punch in the face)
  • lower alcohol level (which means you should head to the new world for the best party juice)
  • More acidity (see Tasting like a boss to see what that means)
  • Relies less on pure fruit flavors in favor of other stuff

Now that you know these tips, you’ll be able to impress (or terribly annoy) all your colleagues at the next office party by saying that the boss’ Pinot Noir “so old world” because it is full of finesse, with low alcohol and a crisp acidity. Cool stuff, right? Hell yes. Be that girl. Do it.

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3. Where do New World Wines Come From, Then?

Well, when your wine is grown with the help of cutting edge tech, chances are you’re the new world.

You see me coming, huh? Yup, and you’re perfectly right. New World wines are – basically – from anywhere but the Old World. For once it’s easy, so let’s not complain this time shall we? That being said, “classic” New World producers are usually the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. In short, we’re talking places where vines of the ancient world (often called by their fancy-pants Latin name  vitis vinifera) were imported and planted. Since there is no third category, you’ll also sometimes see China, India, and even my native Quebec spoken of as being part of the New World. Such is the beautiful inclusive nature of the New World, kids.

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It’s not all about geography, however. As I said earlier, the attitude is also of critical importance. In the New World, winemakers tend to take more risks, are genrally more adventurous and often (a lot) less conservative than their Old World pals. In short, if you ever see a ultrabiodynamic wine that was kept in Hungarian beer barrels under 12 degrees farenheit for 9.8 minutes before being stirred by virgin Tibetan monks, you’re a lot more likely to be in Oregon than in Bordeaux.

4. What New World Wine Tastes Like

Again, the generalization is so coarse it almost hurts. As hard as it was to bring the wines of a continent under the same qualifiers, can you imagine doing the same thing for the other 4? Yeah, vulgar indeed.

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To make it fairer for those hard working winemakers, consider the term “New World” as an adjective refering to wines that have characteristics such as these (hint: it’s pretty much the opposite of the other) rather than as a pure “category” as such.

4.1. Characteristics of Old World Wines

  • Taste “riper” and more intense (ie. a spotted banana instead of a plain yellow one)
  • higher alcohol levels (it is not uncommon for New World wines to hike up to 15-16%)
  • Softer (ie. sweeter, generally with less acidity)
  • Often focused on pure fruit flavors (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc.)

To conclude, just consider the Old World and New World paradigms as opposite ends of a continuum on which you can place certain characteristics of the wines you taste. This is the best way to learn! Also, another pleasant way to train your palate is to attempt this fun blind testing exercise: buy a bottle of each “world” and ask someone to pour them in different glasses. Are you able to tell the difference? Why?

What about you? Are you more New World or Old World, generally? Why? Tell me all about it in the comments!

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