There’s a lot of terminology in the wine world that is thrown around freely in conversation. Sometimes it is done when there is a preconceived assumption that everyone fully understands what’s being said, which can leave some people intimidated. It’s rarely done intentionally but can leave a consumer frustrated when trying to comprehend the details of a specific conversation about wine. When speaking about wine usually a lot of comparisons and contrasts are made to other wines as a way of describing them. One main way is whether a wine is “old world” or “new world” in style. So what exactly does this mean?
The generalization is that old world wines depict a sense of place; where the wine is from, specific regions, vineyards, soils, climates… something that is often described as the wines terroir. Most old world wine regions (France, Spain, and Italy to name a few) label their wines by the specific region the wine is made or where the grapes are grown. Long ago wine makers made their wines for their communities. What exact grapes were being used to produce a specific wine was not as important as the end product. In fact still today through science and genetic testing, new grapes are being discovered in vineyards that were previously though to be a different varietal or ones that were thought to have gone extinct throughout the years. So consumers back then knew of a wine by the region from which it came. But with an increase of trade between countries soon came the need for classifying wines. Some of this was done to ensure which grapes were in the bottle and the wines quality (for example the French A.O.C. classification system).
Traditionally a red wine from Bordeaux France is made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Carmenere (depending on what specific region the wine is from). Different regions within Bordeaux (commonly categorized as “right bank” or “left bank”) were known by the specific grapes grown within each region. Wines from the Medoc and Margaux regions were usually Cabernet Sauvignon based wines, whereas a wine from St. Emilion was primarily made from Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Soil types vary in these regions as does altitude and the amount of precipitation or proximity to a river or other water source. All these differing elements are what become a wines terroir, and no two vineyards produce identical wines. So a wine was known for its style by its place.
On the other hand most new world wines are classified by the grapes used to produce a specific wine. As wine makers from old world countries began to migrate to other areas they took with them cuttings from their vineyards. Earlier on a new world wine could also have been a way to describe the method by which the wine was made as technological advances were being made in wine production. However in recently years this is no longer applicable as many some producers in countries like the United States, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile are going “organic” or “biodynamic” and returning to more traditional wine making methods. And the opposite is happening in European countries where larger wine coops are opting for more modern methods of making wine. New world wines are also known for being more fruit driven wines; wines that exemplify more the characteristics of the grape itself rather than the region the grape is from. That being said this too is changing in the wine world.
In Califonia for example grapes were planted by immigrants who did very little soil research as compared to today. Chardonnay was planted throughout what is now known as Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Mendocino and the list goes on. While the grapes vines were young there was a slight difference between the wines but they were mainly known for their typical Chardonnay fruit style. But now as those vineyards age their roots reach new underground levels of soil and their wines have also taken on their own unique styles. Napa Valley Chardonnay’s are known for generally being drier and crisper in comparison to some of the more rounded Chardonnays of Sonoma. Although a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Rutherford region made be depictable by its “Rutherford dust” it’s still primarily described by its fruit.
As the world of wine continues to evolve some of this terminology becomes more of a generalization than a set fact. But at the end of the day old world wines are known as being from European countries where winemakers continue their production with traditional methods, and wines are often described by their mineral nuances. And even though new American AVA’s are being designated here in the U.S. (as the same happens in other countries), and regions become known for distinct styles new world wines continue to be known for the fruit characteristics.