Wine Fundamentals: Old World vs. New World

Friday, 15 November, 2013
Allie Albanese & Melissa Diaz, Parade
Some of you have asked what it means to call a wine “Old World” or “New World.” Now that you understand how grapes are grown and how wine is made, it’s the perfect time to address this question. Understanding the two types is helpful in figuring out what kind of wine you like (or more importantly, you don’t like), so let’s take a look at the general differences between the two: region, regulation, wine style, and labeling.
1. Region

Old World refers to wines that come from European countries such as France, Italy, Greece, and Spain, and from regions in North Africa and the Middle East. Winemaking began in the Old World, so these regions have a much longer history of viticulture and viniculture than other parts of the world, not to mention they’ve been producing wine for thousands of years. (Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest known wine production dates back to 7000 BC!) The Old World is also where some of the world’s most popular winemaking techniques were developed and where wine quality laws were first created and implemented.

New World refers to wines that come from places such as the United States, South America, Australia, and South Africa. Unlike the Old World, New World regions have only been making wine since about the sixteenth century and have done so using vine cuttings and winemaking techniques brought over from the Old World. Think of it like a younger sibling following in his older sibling’s footstep. Younger, New World wines are just as unique and special to the family. They simply don’t have as much life experience and history as their older, Old World siblings.

2. Regulation

Given the long history of winemaking in Old World regions, it should come as no surprise that each one has a detailed set of rules by which viticulturists and winemakers must abide. France was the first to implement such a system called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in an effort to control the origin and quality of its wine and to ensure that its taste and structure reflect the place it’s from. These laws regulate things such as grape varieties and where they are allowed to be planted, harvest methods, minimum alcohol contents and winemaking methods. We’ll get into more specifics about quality laws later on, but for now just understand that these laws exist and that other Old World wine regions followed France’s lead and implemented their own set of quality laws based on the AOC system.

In contrast, there are a lot fewer restrictions in New World regions, because they don’t have the same types of laws. Winemakers can choose what varieties to plant and where, and they are freer to experiment with how they make wine based on the style and structure they want to make versus what a law says they have to make.

There’s an ongoing argument as to which system results in the better wine, but we’ve tasted enough to know that the Old World and New World are both perfectly capable of producing quality wine!

3. Wine Style

The smell, taste, and feel of a wine in your mouth are probably the most notable differences between Old World and New World wines.  This is where you really see how climate, soil, viticulture, and viniculture affect the resulting wine.

In the Old World, it’s all about terroir. Grapes are grown and harvested with a focus on an expression of place more than on an expression of grape variety, which is why Old World wines tend to be more earthy or minerality-driven. In the New World, however, it’s all about the grapes, which is why New World wines are much more fruit-forward and have few to no earth or mineral notes.

Old World regions also tend not to get as hot as New World regions, which means grapes don’t usually get as ripe. This results in a wine that is lighter-bodied, with tart fruit notes, higher acid, and lower alcohol.

In contrast, New World regions tend to be warmer, so grapes get riper and have more sugar to convert to alcohol. This results in a wine that is fuller-bodied, with ripe to overripe fruit notes, lower acid, and higher alcohol.

Here’s a shortcut to understanding these differences:

Old World: cool to moderate climates = lighter body, subtle fruit, and high earth/minerality

New World: moderate to warm climates = fuller body, bold fruit, and low earth/minerality

Like anything, there are exceptions to every rule. These are just general guidelines to explain why wines taste like they do, which will hopefully help you to know what to expect from a wine and to figure out which style is best suited to your palate.

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