Wine Regions - Old World vs New World

Wine Regions - Old World vs New World

When you start getting into wine, one of the first style concepts you need to understand is "Old World" vs "New World."

In general, wine is made from just one species of grape vine, Vitis Vinifera. Vitis vinifera has grown wildly and been cultivated for thousands of years and the grape names that you've most likely heard of, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Grenache, and more, are all just different varieties of vitis vinifera grapes. In the way that Chihuahuas, Great Danes, and Labradors are all dogs that are different sizes with different characteristics, these wine grapes are all different "breeds" of vitis vinifera.

But where the grapes are grown has a significant impact to the flavor and the characteristics of the wine that is made. In countries of the "Old World" (ie. Europe: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria) the regional characteristics and varieties are in many cases deemed more important than the grape varieties themselves. The French have even invented the word "terroir" to relate the exact environment, from the climate, to the soil, to the elevation and terrain, to it's wine. So wines like Burgundy or Bordeaux are listed by the places, down to the vineyard, where the grapes are grown, not the variety of grapes themselves. This can be very confusing for a new wine drinker, because labels may or may not include what grapes are present, whether it be a single varietal or a blend.

In countries of the "New World" (North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) the grape itself is the defining factor. The grape variety is almost always listed (some blends will just say "red wine") and many blends will give you the exact percentages of the grapes used.

That is not to say that Old World countries do not care about grape varieties, or New World countries do not care about the environment. In most Old World countries, the grapes that can be grown in a certain region are very highly regulated and controlled, and under pressure to compete on a global market, many Old World producers are beginning to list grape varieties on the bottle. Likewise, most New World wineries are getting more and more into terroir as they list their regions and vineyards on the label.

What is perhaps more important is the usage of the terms Old World and New World as they relate to style. In general (and these are big generalities here, exceptions are found all the time) Old World style wines are subtler, more reserved, and more distinctly regional in their flavors. For example, two different producers in Burgundy, one in Chablis, the other Mâcconnais, may both be using the Chardonnay grape, but there is no mistaking one for the other. The terroirs are completely different, the treatment of the grapes and wine making processes will yield two very different wines.

New World wines, on the other hand, tend to be bolder, more fruit forward, higher in alcohol, and more focused on highlighting the wine maker's ideal expression of the grape itself. That is not to say that regionality doesn't play a part. New Zealand has become famous for Sauvignon Blanc, and who hasn't heard of a California Cabernet? In fact, New World countries are becoming more and more obsessed with finding their regional differences and specialties (think Oregon Pinot Noir or Argetinian Malbec) and new viticultural areas are being defined every day for their special regional properties.

Along these lines though, you could easily describe a wine from Spain (an Old World country) as New World in style (sometimes people use International as well) when it is big and fruit forward, while a wine from California (a New World region) as Old World in style if it is more reserved and subtle in flavor with a lower alcohol content.

To help clarify what this means to you, I'm including two photos, each showing an Old World wine bottle next to its New World counterpart.

First, we have single varietals. For both of the bottles below, the grape is 100% Pinot Noir.

The bottle on the left is a red Burgundy. With the exception of Beaujolais (which is another post) all red Burgundy is made from the Pinot Noir grape, yet the label doesn't show Pinot Noir anywhere. In fact, it doesn't even say Burgundy. What it tells you most prominently is the region Ruchottes-Chambertin, a Grand Cru vineyard from that appellation, and that the producer is Louis Jadot. The label assumes you know that Ruchottes-Chambertin is in Burgundy and is made from the Pinot Noir grape.

Compare that to the bottle on the right. Failla is the producer here, their name is the most prominent thing on the label, followed by Pinot Noir. The vintage and Sonoma Coast are on the bottom right, so you see that they do value where the grapes are from, just not as much as the French. The only thing this label assumes you know is that the Sonoma Coast is in California.

Next, we have red wine blends, one from Bordeaux and one from California.

Again, we'll start with the French bottle on the left. The two things most prominent are the winemaker, Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou and the location of Saint-Julien. This is a left-bank Bordeaux, but they don't tell you that. Nor do they tell you it is a red wine blend made with Cabernet Sauvignon as the primary red grape, but perhaps also including Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in varying amounts.

On the right is a California red wine blend. Again, the producer, Gemstone, is the most prominent thing on the front of the bottle, but they also include the four grapes that make up the blend and their percentages in the wine. This trend follows over and over between Old World and New World wines.

A couple of tips for buying: In general, the more specific the region on an Old World label, the higher end (and therefore more expensive) the wine. So a wine that says just Burgundy or Bordeaux and nothing else means that the grapes came from anywhere in that entire region.  Along the same lines, in general, the most expensive New World wines will name specific vineyards or call themselves Estate wines. If you are unsure about a region or a wine, look it up before spending a lot of money on a bottle, there are a lot of places that grossly overprice bottles of "Bordeaux Superiore" (which is generic, not superior Bordeaux as the name implies) because Bordeaux has a reputation for being expensive wine. Similarly, be careful with the word "Reserve." It can mean special wine, but there is nothing that legally makes it so. Some companies call all their wines "Reserve" whether they are cheap generic bottles or the good stuff. My guess is this is a marketing ploy to dupe buyers since the term "Reserva" on a bottle from Spain, or "Riserva" on a bottle from Italy actually does mean something, in most cases referring to the time a wine was aged before release. 

I love tasting Old vs New World wines side by side to see and taste how the difference in perspective makes very different wine from the same grape varieties. Also, many Old World winemakers produce affordable daily drinkers/table wines that are listed by their varietal names while the fine wines follow the regional designations. For example, the famous Italian wines Barolo and Barbaresco are made from the Nebbiolo grape. They are usually aged and can be pretty expensive. Using modern winemaking techniques, there are many Italian winemakers creating New World style Nebbiolos with softer tannin and lots of fruit. While these are very different in style than Barolo, it's a neat way to try the same grape in a different format.

Now that you are in the know, go out and taste some wines.