Old World vs New World Wine: simplifying the grape rivalry
We are talking about Old World wine makers and New World wine makers. (Duh!)
Ever since the first Californian smooshed a batch of grapes into a delicious fermented beverage, there were a dozen French critics to tell him he did it wrong. That hypothetical beef is the crux of the Old World vs New World wine dynamic.
The European, or Old World, wine makers simply could not abide the liberties some of these New World wine upstarts were taking.
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Old World vs New World Wine
To understand the New World vs Old World division better, it helps to know where the boundaries are drawn, literally.
Old World wine refers primarily to wines produced in Europe.
Seems a bit exclusive, right? France, Italy, Spain, and Germany are all major Old World wine producers.
New World wine, on the other hand, refers to wine produced pretty much everywhere else. Some of the most important New World wine producing nations are New Zealand, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and the United States.
While this may seem like an arbitrary distinction, there are some qualitative reasons the Old World vs New World wine division exists.
First of all, the two “worlds” produce radically different wines and have radically different traditions. Among wine connoisseurs, the Old World vs New World wine debate could lead to fist fights or at least a bitter exchange of insults and naughty words.
More often than not, those who like adventure, innovation, and generally sticking it to the proverbial “man” prefer the freedom offered by the New World. Hardcore traditionalists, on the other hand, tend to be loyal to the established traditions and terroir of the Old World.
The tricky part of the New World vs Old World discussion arises when you bring up natural wine.
Natural wine is a point of contention among winos in general, but when you phrase it in terms of Old World vs New World wine, you are bound to have a fight.
Natural wine may sound like Natty Light’s answer to canned wine, but it is actually a vast and rapidly expanding segment of the wine market. “Natural” is thrown around a lot these days, often meaning very little.
Nonetheless, in the context of wine, “natural” does refer to something specific. Typically, it refers to wine that has had very little added or done to the grapes, beyond the most basic fermentation.
It is not uncommon for natural wine to contain sediment and appear cloudy, and the flavors are often a lot more unpredictable. This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is the yeast.
While most winemakers add their own chosen yeast blend, natural wine producers often utilize the yeast that naturally exists in the air. And by utilize, we mean they leave the tanks open and just let whatever float on in.
If you do this in Burgundy, France, you might end up with a delicate, delicious Pinot Noir that is a perfect expression of the region’s ancient terroir.
If you do the same in Missouri, you might end up with some sickly sweet, barnyard-flavored grape juice.
How does this relate to the New World vs Old World debate?
Well, it doesn’t, at least not directly.
Natural wine production is practiced in both the Old and New World, and there are spectacularly delicious examples from both. In this way, natural wine disrupts the Old World vs New World wine divide.
It is the oldest and most unadulterated way to make wine, and though it is practiced in many regions in the Old World, it is in the New World in which some of the best and most pure examples of natural wine originate.
What is the Difference Between Old World and New World?
The difference between Old World and New World wine comes down to rules, traditions, and norms. Old World wine makers follow them, and New World wine makers do not.
France, in particular, is known for strict standards and methods, which date back hundreds of years. To some, this may seem a totally uncool approach to creation, but it does have its merits. Champagne and Burgundy are both French wine regions with impeccable standards, and wines from both regions come with a hefty price tag.
In terms of what you taste when drinking Old World vs New World wine, you might not always know, but there are some clues to look for.
Old World wine producers typically prefer to let the grapes themselves tell the story, while New World wine makers often play with different flavors and added ingredients to help bring out the best flavors, and even create new ones.
Oak can also be an indicator of New World vs Old World wine. While many Old World producers do utilize oak, New World producers, especially those in California, have traditionally been fond of using a plethora of oak. They are also more likely to use new oak and American oak as opposed to previously-used oak barrels or those made from French oak, which tend to impart more subtle flavors.
Another difference between Old World and New World wine is the presence of strict, government-imposed quality standards. In France and Italy, the government steps in to hold wine growers and producers accountable.
Wine producers who use shoddy grapes or production methods are subject to fines, jail time, or even the death penalty! Okay, we made up the part about the death penalty, but they are pretty strict.
In California and most other states in the US, no such standards exist. That is why you may encounter some truly marvelous California wine and some that are closer to turpentine.
One potential hint to differentiate between Old World vs New World wine is the alcohol content. For the most part, Old World wine regions tend to be cooler, due to the higher latitudes.
New World wine tends to come from warmer climates, which means the grapes will grow darker and sweeter and will produce wines higher in alcohol content.
This is not, by any means, the best way to differentiate Old World vs New World wine, but it can give you a clue as to the climate from which the wine came. There are definite exceptions, though. Parts of Spain and France get hot as a soufflé, and Washington state, New Zealand and Chile are all quite…chilly.
With all of that said, short of the label, there is not always a clear way to tell the difference between Old and New World wine.
Some Oregon Pinot Noirs are so delicate and earthy that they taste like a French Burgundy. Some of the Rieslings produced in the Finger Lakes region of New York state are a dead ringer for those produced in the Mosel region of Germany.
Old World Wine
As previously mentioned, Old World wine is pretty much exclusively Europe and the Mediterranean.
The name is fitting, as that is where the art of making wine diversified and developed, although where it truthfully originated is not entirely known. Wine making has been around since the Egyptians and Sumerians, but it was the Romans who spread it throughout Europe.
They planted some of the oldest vineyards in Italy, France, Germany, and the rest of central and Western Europe. It is no coincidence that these are some of the most important Old World wine producing areas today. Here is a brief rundown of what is grown and produced in each country.
France is arguably the single-most significant wine producing country in the world. It contains several of the world’s most renowned wine regions and produces over three million liters of wine a year.
Some of the most noteworthy regions in France are Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. Those are just the A-listers, though. Rhone, Loire Valley, and Alsace are nothing to sneeze at either, unless you are allergic to grapes, in which case we pity you.
If France is top dog in the wine world, Italy is the wolf who gave birth to it.
Italy has been producing wine for literally thousands of years, and it is where some of the oldest and most idyllic vineyards still reside. Some of the most famous Old World wine producing regions are located within the central and Northern part of the boot-shaped nation.
Chianti and Prosecco are two examples, as is Piedmont, which contains several smaller regions. Of these, Barolo and Barbaresco boast the highest price, while those from Alba and Asti tend to be a lot more affordable.
Germany is a bit of an oddball in the Old World wine community. They have very precise standards and ways of doing things that are a bit different than everyone else’s (think of the German Purity Law for beer). Riesling is definitely king here, with Pinot Noir and a few other whites also being common.
Spain is on the upswing, in terms of price and quality, though it has been producing wine for centuries. Rioja is one of the most important regions for Spanish wine, as is Jerez, which is where all Sherry originates.
Right next to Spain is Portugal, a nation not known for its dry wine as much for the world famous Port dessert wine. Nowadays, Portugal produces much more than just port, and is a great source of delicious, affordable Old World wine.
Austria has a similar wine producing tradition as Germany, but with a few weird exceptions. Austria is known for primarily producing Gruner Veltliner, as well as a bunch of other interesting Austrian grapes we honestly can’t pronounce.
For a more in-depth look into Old World Wines, read more here.
New World Wines
The New World is a broad term, encompassing the rest of the wine-producing world.
If the Old World is where the traditions began, the New World is where they were carried on and expanded upon. Because the New World stretches all around the globe, there is a greater degree of climate diversity among New World wine regions.
While Australia is not necessarily the oldest wine producing nation in the New World, it certainly makes up for it in production volume today. The most famous red grape in Australia is Shiraz, which is known as Syrah in the Old World.
Hanging out next to Australia, we have New Zealand, home of kiwi birds and the Lord of the Rings movies. The main grape for which New Zealand is known is Sauvignon Blanc, which often has an herbal, almost grassy flavor.
South Africa produces a lot of white wine that is refreshing, unique, and delicious. It is also known for a grape called Pinotage, which no one seems to like.
Chile is one of the most underrated wine regions and also one of our favorites. Due to the high altitudes, Chile produces some of the most affordable and complex reds available in the New World.
Bigger and more well established than Chile’s, Argentina’s famous Mendoza region produces arguably the best Malbec in the world. In fact, it is largely the reason the grape has had enduring popularity.
Canada is less well-known for its wine than for its maple syrup and whiskey (which are both incredible). Nevertheless, they do produce their fair share of white wine. In particular, they produce ice wine, a style that originated in Germany.
The US is one of the largest wine-producing countries in the world. Most of the wine in the US comes from the West Coast, with California being, by far, the biggest producer. Within the state, Napa and Sonoma are the most significant regions, producing some of the most expensive and high-quality New World wines.
Read our complete guide for a more in-depth look into New World Wines.
Overall Old World Wine vs New World Wine
While there may not be a definitive way of differentiating Old World vs New World wine, it is still helpful to have an understanding of the distinction.
Practically speaking, understanding Old World vs New World wine is more about history, geography, and style than it is about determining which is better.
All around the world, excellent wine is being produced and drunk, and each vineyard and region does things their own way.