Old World and New World wines

Wednesday, 21 April, 2004
Martin Moore
In the end, both sides can learn much from each other
Now, which approach do you prefer? The more romantic one borne out of experience and an observance of nature, or a scientific one based on an analysis of weather patterns?

It is not such a silly question, because it encapsulates the difference in approach between the Old World and the New World to winemaking and wine marketing.

The Old World follows a more instinctive approach circumscribed by the experience of many generations while the New World tends to analyse everything and experiment continuously in order to improve their wines.

At a recent tasting done for the Cape Wine Academy, Cape Wine Master Clive Torr debated the virtues of the Old World, while I defended the New World. Normally a firm believer in the Old World's approach to winemaking I had to read up a bit to formulate a case for the New World (and in doing so discovered that I own no less than 74 books on wine!). 

Despite being a New World winemaker, I must admit I could easily have debated some of the virtues of the Old World. However, I must also admit that an area often downplayed by the Old World (whose motto seems to be 'to confuse and impress' rather than 'to enlighten and educate') is what the vine needs to produce outstanding grapes while that is such a high priority in the New World.

Vines need soil for their roots, water to sustain growth and enough sunlight to ripen the berries. The vine’s only aim is to produce sugar and attractive fruit flavours in order to attract birds and mammals (man included) to eat the grapes and spread the pips through a process not to be described in a decent newsletter. People started cultivating grapes, discovered how to turn it into wine, made too much of it for their own use and started trading or selling what they themselves could not drink. But, not being the only ones doing so, competition started. Unique selling points (USPs) were created: My story is better than yours (and so is my wine), so I sell more than you.

In the Old World (France in particular) you often hear the claim that what goes into their wines has been handed down from generation to generation. (But with what accuracy? And what were the chances of misunderstandings between one generation and the next? Such as: 'My father said: ‘Always plant this variety in a cool spot’.'

Not-so-bright son decides: This is 'cool', I can see the village from here!

No, I am not trying to be derogatory, but what I have often found in the Old World is a lack of questioning of why things are being done the way they are. When I have asked Old World winemakers why a particular approach was being followed, I would more often than not be told: 'That’s a family secret that goes back many generations.' Yes, they possibly did not want to divulge the answer to a stranger, but there were also times when I had the distinct impression they themselves did not really know either!

A typical example is the French grading system of the various growths. This was done ages ago and one has to ask oneself: What standards guided this classification originally and how accurate is it still today? Personally I don’t believe the efforts of the French in recent times to overhaul it have done much to change the essential nature of the system.

In contrast, I find much that is exciting in the New World. Because we are not tied to tradition to the same extent, we approach winemaking with a much more open mind, which means that we question and experiment all the time (an approach which also has inherent risks). In the end, both sides can learn much from each other.

I suppose if we are critical of the Old World, our attitude is no different from that of the young winemakers of Europe to the traditions of the Old Old World when so many centuries ago winemaking migrated from the warmer lands of the Middle East to Western Europe!

So this time, as they are so often forgotten, let's raise a glass to those winemakers of the Old Old World who at the dawn of civilization – and perhaps that was the reason for it! - discovered the magical process of winemaking.

Cheers, Martin

Durbanville Hills
Contact: Martin Moore
Tel: +27 (0) 21 558-1300

Issued by: De Kock Communications
Email: pippa@dkc.co.za