Old World & New World Wines: What's the Difference?

I am sure that most of you have used, or at least heard bandied about, terms such as ‘Old World’ or ‘New World’ when talking about wines. What do these terms really mean? How did they originate? Do they matter? Read on to find out more.

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The term ‘New World’ wine is used quite literally to describe wines coming from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa or Argentina; essentially all wine producing countries outside of Europe. The rationale being that these New World countries only started producing wine in the fifteenth, sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, following European exploration or colonization. In contrast, wine has been made in Europe and along the Mediterranean for several millennia.

Style Differences
Figuratively the terms ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’ are widely used as descriptive terms to describe or infer a style of wine or winemaking practices.

• Old World wines are traditionally more ‘terroir’ and structure driven.
• In contrast, New World wines are typically more ‘fruity’; modern, squeaky clean, fruit forward and in general more varietal driven.

Different Philosophies
Old World winemaking philosophies emanated from a sense of place, and the primordial role ascribed to ‘terroir’ as well as ‘mother-nature’ in determining wine quality.

In contrast, the New World philosophy generally placed less sanctity on the preeminence of ‘terroir’, and more on the preservation of varietal fruit character, believing that the appropriate harnessing of scientific and technological best practices in the vineyard and in the winery could iron out any ‘terroir’ imperfections.

That is the theory, and while retaining certain truisms, today the dividing line is more blurred, as New World wine producers discover ‘terroir’ and Old World producers discover ‘fruit’, adopting many of the technological advances developed in the New World.

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What about Quality?
Qualitatively, there is no reason to suggest that Old World wines are better than New World wines or vice versa, although the term New World is sometimes used condescendingly by some, who narrow-mindedly believe that Old World wines are superior to New World wines. Certainly, some of the world’s greatest and most age-worthy wines such as Bordeaux, Tokaji or Port come from the Old World, but the New World has also produced its fair share of outstanding icons such as Penfold’s Grange, Opus One or Screaming Eagle.

What is true is that they are different. No matter how much the styles seem to converge, Old World wines tend to retain a more obvious minerality or savoriness, no matter how ‘fruity’ they become. Likewise, New World wines retain their more forward fruit, no matter how strongly they portray their a sense of ‘place’.

High alcohol is a term often used to differentiate Old and New World wines, the latter typically being the higher alcohol culprit. While, true that many New World wines reach 16% abv and above, there are also many that lie between 13% and 14%. Moreover, as a consequence of warmer vintages and viticultural and winemaking improvements, many Old World wines are also hitting the 15% alcohol mark.

Regulatory Differences
Regulatory wise, a big difference between Old and New World wines lies in the laws governing how they are made. In the New World, very few restrictions exist, and winemakers are free to plant whatever grape varieties they wish and make the wine however they deem appropriate.

In contrast every designated Old World wine region (such as any French AOC, Italian DOC or DOCG, Spanish DO, etc.) has to adhere to a detailed set of rules that govern what can be planted, density of planting, training and pruning methods, minimum ripeness at harvest, maximum yields, winemaking techniques and use of oak. While these rules were established to ensure a minimum standard of quality, some producers complain that they are too restrictive today, advocating that changes in climate as well as viticulture and winemaking advances necessitate some liberalization of rules. But that is altogether another topic for another day’s post.

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Comparing an Old World and New World Wine
To compare Old World and New World I’ve selected two wines, made from the same grape, Sauvignon Blanc, and they are both unoaked. The Old World wine is a Pouilly Fumé, from the Loire Valley, France, and the New World wine is a single vineyard wine from Marlborough, New Zealand. Both are from the 2009 vintage and both cost around $22. The Pouilly Fumé is 13% alcohol and the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is 13.3%.

NEW WORLD: 2009 Awatere River Marlborough Single Vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc, $21 – Paler in color, though technically older (as harvest happens down under six months earlier for the same vintage) than the Pouilly Fumé. Intensely aromatic on the nose, showing the classic, New Zealand gooseberry, grassy, Sauvignon Blanc pungency. Crisp and zesty flavors prevail on the palate. Nicely textured, smooth, showing some creaminess, complexity and mid-palate weight. The grape takes center stage and is almost a solo act – but an excellent soloist.

OLD WORLD: 2009 Domaine Roger Pabiot, Coteaux des Girarmes, AC pouilly Fumé, $22 – More subtle aromas, combining savory minerality alongside the grassy, citrusy character of Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp attack, more savory, minerally notes hit first, followed by the more classic Sauvignon Blanc flavors that are fresh, well-defined and vibrant, but not the solo player. This wine displays a broader array of flavors on the palate. Not quite an orchestra, but not a soloist either.

I would really love to hear your views on Old World wines versus New World wines - an eternally debatable topic!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

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(Images: Mary Gorman)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.