You may have wine-crazy friends who tell you that they only enjoy the Old World style or they prefer the strong New World style, and wondered what the difference between the two is. With this guide, we hope to provide you with some key facts about Old World and New World wines to prepare you so you can chip in the next time your wine-crazy friends’ discuss about this.
Here are 6 key differences between Old World and New World wines. If you have no time to read the whole article, just follow the bold parts to see the important points.
1. Geographical Location: Europe vs the Rest of the World
Old World: Europe (and a bit of Western Asia)
Old World wines, as the name suggests, are from regions where wine-making originated. They say the first wine producers in the world were the Phoenicians and the Greeks, who ruled in the regions of modern day Europe and even some parts of the Middle East. This is why Old World wine countries include France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and even Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Wines from these regions are already old and tested.
New World: Rest of the World
New World wines are from regions where wine-making were imported during the Age of Discovery and anytime after that period. These include relatively young wine-producing regions that adopted the traditions of the Old World wine producers, and they include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Countries like China, India and Japan are also New World regions where wine production has been growing rapidly in the more recent years.
2. Regulations: Strict Laws vs Free Experiments
Old World: Strict Regulations for Winemaking
In Old World regions, this long history of winemaking (extending to thousands of years for some) as well as the role of wines in these countries’ economies resulted in strict laws that regulate the production of wine. These regulations were implemented as measures to control the quality and quantity of the wines and to maintain the value of these wines associated with their respective regions.
Such laws, regulated by respective regulatory councils, include demarcated vineyard areas, certain grape varieties grown, harvest methods, production yields, minimum alcohol level, winemaking methods etc., which result in the regions’ ‘signature’ wine products. For example, a Bordeaux wine can only include one or a mixture of these five grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.
New World: Free to Experiment
For New World wines, generally, there are fewer regulations that winemakers must follow to produce their wines. The winemakers are free to plan and harvest grape varieties that they prefer, which allows them to experiment with different varieties and compositions to find the right varietal fit for the vineyards, or for their customers. In this regard, winemakers can be more flexible to test out new products in the market and follow the trends of the consumers.
3. Winemaking: Concept of ‘Terroir’ vs Winemaker
Old World wine is ‘made by the vineyards,’ New World wine is ‘made by winemakers.’
Old World: The Role of ‘Terroir’
On top of regulations that govern the way wine is produced in each region, the ‘terroir’ plays a big factor in winemaking in the Old World. ‘Terroir’ is a French word that denotes all of the natural environmental factors that can affect the growth of the grapes—weather, land, soil, altitude, coastal influence, growing conditions, etc.—even if the same grape varieties are used. The terroir only follows the forces of nature and cannot be manufactured or altered. These factors vary year by year, which is why wines from the same region but different vintages (year) may vary drastically, and which is why the vintages of wines are very important for Old World regions.
Consequently, the Old World believes that wine is made by the vineyards, and not by the winemakers who can intervene in the process. This means that a good wine from a good appellation will remain a good wine even after the winemaker leaves the estate, as the terroir will remain the same to produce these excellent wines.
New World: Winemaker
For New World wines, more emphasis is put on the winemakers and their skills to produce great wines, as well as modern winemaking technology, than the terroir. Even during less-than-average harvest years, New World winemakers can salvage the vintage by incorporating modern winemaking methods such as irrigation systems to cover for the lack of rain, soil transfer, recultivation, acidification (adding of tartaric acid) and chaptalization (adding of grape sugar). These methods are no longer ‘natural’ in its purest sense, as it is altering the terroir, but they allow winemakers to create ideal grape growing conditions and produce decent wines.
As opposed to the Old World wines remaining unchanged when a winemaker leaves the estate, for New World wines, the winemaker can leave and take with him/her his/her unique winemaking methods to another region and create his unique wines elsewhere. Due to their craftsmanship and winemaking skills, New World winemakers are highly paid.
4. Name and Labelling: Appellations vs Grape Varietals
Old World: Appellations (Regions)
Incorporating the terroir and following strict regulations in the winemaking process naturally led to Old World wines being categorized and labelled into regions, more precisely known as appellations. Each appellation has its own terroir that shapes the taste of its wines, and its own set of rules that winemakers in the region must follow, and only if they do, their wines can be named as an appellation wine. These labels with appellations then, in turn, indicate that there is a certain standard to the wines as they would have been produced with strict laws regulating the winemaking process.
Also, grape varieties are seldom written on the labels of Old World wines as the appellations themselves represent certain grape varieties that are used in the wines. This means that only those who are familiar with appellations know what grape varieties consist these appellation wines.
Here’s a famous example: the name ‘Champagne’ can only be used for wines that come from the Champagne region in France, and cannot be used for any other sparkling wines (though many people still say ‘champagne’ when they mean ‘sparkling wine’). This is to ensure that the quality of the ‘Champagne’ brand can be upheld.
New World: Grape Varieties
New World wines, on the other hand, are categorized in a way that it’s easier for consumers to choose their preferred wines: they are classified into grape varieties (e.g. cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay). This method provides consumers, especially the young and modern ones, with the clarity of knowing what to expect from the wine, and thus allowing them to understand better what their preferences are in choosing their wines.
It’s not commercially viable for New World wines to be classified into regions, because the New World regions don’t carry the same name value as Old World wines do (for now at least). Take California’s Napa Valley wines for instance. Napa Valley produces a wide range of grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, pinot noir, chardonnay, viognier and many more. Winemakers are also free to experiment with the type of wine they want to produce, which means that simply naming a wine ‘Napa Valley’ won’t have much significance as it’ll be difficult for consumers to pinpoint what sort of wine a ‘Napa Valley’ wine entails.
Recently, New World wines have also begun using regional names, such as in the United States and in Australia, but it is only in its initial stages. It will take some time for these regions to have the same presence and quality statement the Old World counterparts have.
5. Wine Style: Lightweight vs Heavyweight
The style of the wine can be broken down into the colour, smell, taste and mouthfeel, which are all affected by the terroir and the winemaking process. The Old World and New World characteristics are merely generalizations and there are plenty of exceptions, as each region and each estate—whether in the Old or New World region—have different styles of wine they pursue.
Old World: Lighter-Bodied, More Earthly
Old World wines are generally known to have a more ‘elegant’ wine style. As the Old World focuses on the natural terroir, Old World wines tend to be more earthly and mineral-driven with herbal and floral characteristics. The fruity notes are more restrained, and they are generally lighter-bodied, high in acidity and lower in alcohol content. This is also due to the cooler weather in Old World regions, resulting in less-ripened grapes, which means there is less sugar to translate into alcohol.
New World: Fuller-Bodied, More Fruity
New World regions are generally in warmer climates, which causes the wines to be fuller-bodied and have higher alcohol content. As there is more sun and heat, grapes ripen more and have more sugar content, which leads to more alcohol during the fermentation process. The focus on the grape varieties, rather than the terroir, also leads to a more fruit-centered wine with heavy, ripe fruit flavours with low acidity and minerality.
6. Bottling: Corks vs Screw Caps
Old World wine bottles have corks to close the bottles, whereas New World wine bottles use screw caps. Again, though this is generally true, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Old World: Corks
The first reason why Old World wines are corked is to enable the wines to age. Corks are made of tree bark and naturally allow air to flow in and out of the bottle. When the wine gets into contact with air, the aromas and flavours develop, and with the right conditions, develop into something even more amazing. The delicate and subtle style of Old World wines allow them to be very suitable for aging. The changes in aromas and flavours that can be observed while aging is more apparent, as even the slightest differences will be obvious.
Another reason corks are used in the Old World is that of tradition. People in the Old World are accustomed to wines being corked as it has been done this way for thousands of years in some regions. Whether it’s the joy of using a corkscrew or hearing that ‘pop’ sound when the cork comes out, uncorking the wine is an important tradition in the Old World.
New World: Screw Caps
For New World wines, however, many bottles are closed with a screw cap. A screw cap is much cheaper to produce and it is a modern, secure way of preventing the contents within a bottle from spoiling. Screw caps don’t allow air to flow through the bottle, which means that aging bottles with screw caps is practically pointless as there will be no change to the aromas and flavours of the wine overtime. The up-side is that the wines will remain crisp and well-preserved.
Old World wines evoke heritage and nostalgia and with a sturdy foundation and terroir, no longer have to experiment with new grapes. It is exciting for wine drinkers to realize that the wine they drink been made in the same way for centuries, and has so much legacy and history behind it.
New World wines represent the entrepreneurial spirit of descendants of immigrants who always strive to make the best out of their situation. Technology and science (and marketing) have helped New World wines to develop fast and attract many younger consumers.
But in this globalized world where the lines are blurred, ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ have extended out from a mere regional sense, and have come to represent tradition and modernization in the wine world. This is why you may find French wines produced with modern technology and Australian wines produced in a more traditional way than other local wines.
Yes, Old World and New World wines have many differences and wine lovers are always debating over which style is better. But ultimately, it comes down to yourself to see which wine you prefer, so you’ll just have to drink both Worlds and see where it takes you!
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